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Google predicts the future: Go big on artificial intelligence

In his first-ever letter to shareholders, Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the next wave of computing is all about machine learning. And a computer that can beat you at a 2,500-year-old board game.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai touts the company's AI efforts.

James Martin/CNET

It's a given that the most important thing to Google -- the company/verb/website that's synonymous with finding things using the Internet -- is its search business. Now, as the company lays out its master plan for the future, Google is making sure that business is injected with a healthy dose of artificial intelligence.

At least that's the big takeaway from Google's annual letter, published Thursday, and penned for the first time by CEO Sundar Pichai rather than Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Instead of users having to type words into a search box on a computer or phone, Google wants to fetch info and do stuff for you without you having to ask. That includes things like nudging you to leave for the airport early enough so you don't get stuck in traffic and miss your flight, giving you the weekly forecast for your trip to Madrid, or even helping detect cancer.

All of that requires powerful computing, done by machines that can learn on the fly.

"Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the 'device' to fade away," wrote Pichai, who took over as CEO eight months ago. "Over time, the computer itself -- whatever its form factor -- will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world."

Buzz about AI is pretty loud in Silicon Valley. Earlier this month, Facebook set up a new Applied Machine Learning group, tasked with making advancements in AI. Mark Zuckerberg's company, along with others such as Microsoft, are investing big in chatbots, software that answers questions and performs simple tasks like making a calendar appointment for you.

Thursday's letter is the first time Google's update has been written by anyone besides Page and Brin, who founded the company as Stanford grad students in 1998. In 2,100 words, Pichai doubles down on the mission laid out by Page and Brin back in the day -- to "organize the world's information" -- and adds to it.

"Today we are about one thing above all else: making information and knowledge available for everyone," Pichai, 43, wrote.

Just how important is search to Google? In some cases, Pichai capitalizes the word when he writes it, like "He" or "Lord" is capitalized in the Bible. Page and Brin didn't capitalize it in their 2004 founders' letter when the company went public, even when referring to it as a product.

That Page and Brin would tap Pichai to write the letter isn't a surprise. Last year, the founders announced a bombshell reorganization of Google, structuring everything, including Google itself and other projects like its Fiber service and Nest smart-home company, under a holding company named Alphabet. As part of that change, Page became Alphabet's CEO and Brin its president. Pichai took the reins as CEO of Google.

In the letter, Pichai also calls out recent wins for the company in machine learning, like its software beating the human champion of the ancient Chinese game Go in a 4-1 series.

"The implications for this victory are, literally, game changing -- and the ultimate winner is humanity," Pichai wrote. "This is another important step toward creating artificial intelligence that can help us in everything from accomplishing our daily tasks and travels, to eventually tackling even bigger challenges like climate change and cancer diagnosis."

The idea is to spread access to information, and along the way, Google's services, far and wide. That may be a challenge in Europe, where regulators are scrutinizing Google's search engine and Android mobile software for allegedly being anticompetitive.

"For us, technology is not about the devices or the products we build. Those aren't the end-goals. Technology is a democratizing force, empowering people through information," wrote Pichai. "Google is an information company. It was when it was founded, and it is today."

But now, with more robots.