Search engines revolutionized how we access information, but will it survive AI?

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Today marks an important milestone in Internet history: Google’s 25th birthday. With billions of search queries submitted every day, it’s hard to remember how we ever lived without search engines.

What was it about Google that revolutionized information access? And will artificial intelligence (AI) make it obsolete or enhance it?

Let’s take a look at how our access to information has changed over the decades – and where it will lead as advanced AI and Google search become increasingly connected.

Google’s homepage in 1998.
Brent Payne/FlickrCC BY-SA

1950: Public Libraries as Community Centers

In the years after World War II, it was generally accepted that a successful postwar city was one that could provide civic competence—and that included open access to information.

So in the 1950s information in Western countries was mainly provided by local libraries. Librarians themselves were a sort of “human search engine”. They answered business phone inquiries and responded to letters – helping people find information quickly and accurately.

Libraries were just a place to borrow books. It was where parents went to find health information, where tourists requested travel tips, and where businesses sought marketing advice.

Search was free, but required support from librarians, as well as considerable labor and catalog-driven processes. Questions that we can now solve in minutes took hours, days or weeks to answer.

1990: Emergence of paid search services

By the 1990s, libraries expanded to include personal computers and online access to information services. Professional search companies flourished as libraries could access information through expensive subscription services.

The system was so complex that only trained experts could figure it out, with consumers paying for the results. Communication, developed at Lockheed Martin in the 1960s, is one of the best examples. Today it claims to provide its customers with “access to 1.7 billion records of peer-reviewed literature in more than 140 databases”.

This photo from 1979 shows a librarian at the terminals of an online retrieval system dialog.
US National Archives

Another commercial search system, The Financial Times’ FT Profile, enabled access to articles from every UK broadsheet newspaper over a five-year period.

But it was not easy to find him. Users have to remember typed commands to select collections, narrow down the list of returned documents using specific words. Articles were ordered by date, leaving readers to scan the most relevant items.

FT PROFILE made valuable information quickly available to people outside business circles, but at a high cost. In the 1990s access cost £1.60 per minute – equivalent to £4.65 (or A$9.00) today.

A mock-up example of the FT PROFILE command-driven search interface.
Mark Sanderson

The rise of Google

After the launch of the World Wide Web in 1993, the number of websites grew exponentially.

Libraries provide public web access, and services such as the State Library of Victoria’s VickNet provide low-cost access to institutions. Librarians taught users how to find information online and create websites. However, complex search systems struggled with large volumes of content and large numbers of new users.

In 1994, the book Managing Gigabytes, written by three New Zealand computer scientists, addressed this issue. Since the 1950s, researchers have envisioned search engines that are fast, accessible to all, and that sort documents by relevance.

In the 1990s, Silicon Valley startups began applying this knowledge—Larry Page and Sergey Brin used the principles to manage gigabytes to design Google’s iconic architecture.

After launching on September 4, 1998, the Google revolution was in motion. People liked the simplicity of the search box, as well as the new presentation of results that summarizes how the retrieved pages match the query.

In terms of functionality, Google Search was effective for a few reasons. It used an innovative approach to deliver results by measuring web links on a page (a process called PageRank). But more importantly, its algorithms were very sophisticated; It not only matches search queries to the text on the page, but also to other text linked to that page (called anchor text).

Google’s popularity quickly surpassed rivals like AltaVista and Yahoo Search. Today, it remains the most popular search engine, with over 85% market share.

As the web expanded, access prices became controversial.

Although consumers now search Google for free, some articles and books require payment to download. Many customers still rely on libraries – when libraries themselves are faced with the rising cost of purchasing materials to provide for free to the public.

What will the next 25 years bring?

Google has expanded beyond search. Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Pixel devices and other services show that Google’s reach is huge.

With the introduction of AI tools including Google’s Bard and the recently announced Gemini (ChatGPT’s direct competitor), Google is poised to revolutionize search once again.

As Google continues to roll out generative AI capabilities in search, it will become common to read a quick information summary at the top of a results page instead of searching for information yourself. A key challenge will be to ensure that people do not become complacent to the point that they blindly trust the output generated.

Fact-checking against original sources will remain as important as ever. Finally, we’ve seen generative AI tools like ChatGPT make headlines due to “confusion” and misinformation.

If inaccurate or incomplete search summaries are not corrected, or are further defined and presented without source material, the problem of misinformation will be exacerbated.

Furthermore, even if AI tools revolutionize discovery, they may fail to revolutionize access. As the AI ​​industry continues to grow, we are seeing a shift to content being accessible only for a fee or through paid subscriptions.

The rise of AI provides an opportunity to revisit the tension between public access and increasingly powerful commercial entities.

Read more: The hidden cost of the AI ​​boom: social and environmental exploitation

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