Google search is about to get a lot smarter

The company's go-to guy for artificial intelligence is taking over its biggest business as its current search boss retires.

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Google's head of AI will be taking over search.

© Richard Levine/Demotix/Corbis

How important is artificial intelligence to Google's future? Hint: The search giant is promoting its head of AI to take over its biggest business.

Google on Wednesday said AI chief John Giannandrea will take over search responsibilities when current search boss Amit Singhal retires at the end of the month. That move signals profound changes for how we find things online.

Many believe AI will deliver some of the biggest breakthroughs in computing technology over the next few years. The goal of AI is to create systems that understand their environment and even handle everyday tasks, from recognizing speech and handwriting, preventing online fraud and replying to emails to developing self-piloting cars. Google, already deep in AI research, looks set to further apply the technology to the one product we all touch every day.

"Search has transformed people's lives; over a billion people rely on us," wrote Singhal, 48, in a post on Google+. "Search is stronger than ever, and will only get better in the hands of an outstanding set of senior leaders who are already running the show day-to-day."

Google, a unit of parent company Alphabet, confirmed Giannandrea's new role but declined further comment.

Choosing the head of Google's artificial intelligence efforts to run the company's crown jewel telegraphs how important AI is to Google. That's especially true as Google tries to shift away from search just being bound by a query box and a keyboard, but more of an assistant that can predict what you need in different situations.

Google has a deep investment in AI. Last week, the company announced its London-based AI division, DeepMind, had developed a program that beat a human expert at Go, the ancient Chinese board game that's exponentially more complex than chess. On a conference call on Monday, Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat called out AI as among the company's most important "moon shots" -- Alphabet parlance for its most ambitious projects.

Singhal, who is retiring at the end of the month, is a towering figure within Google. He's earned the rare distinction of Google Fellow, a title reserved for only the company's most accomplished engineers. After Singhal announced his retirement, Danny Sullivan, a longtime Google observer, likened his role at the company to iconic industrial designer Jony Ive's role at Apple.

Giannandrea, who was CTO of the early Internet giant Netscape, came to Google in 2010 when it bought his data company Metaweb. He knows he's got a lot of work to do to make computers smarter.

"I think computers are remarkably dumb," he told Fortune in October. "A computer is like a 4-year-old child."

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