The gathering AI storm between Microsoft and Google

Microsoft caught Google off-guard with its recent push into generative AI, which could have big ramifications for search. And it might just mean the Singularity is closer than we think.

Artificial intelligence and digital identity

Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.

Microsoft this week caught Google napping when it comes to the future of online search — much as Google caught Microsoft napping almost two decades ago when it came to the future of web browsers. And given the similarities between the two, Google should have been better prepared.

Think of it: Google’s rollout of Bard is reminiscent of Microsoft’s acquisition of Spyglass — the maker of Mosaic, remember? — back when Microsoft moved to compete with Netscape. Even with the Microsoft-Spyglass tie-up, upstart Google still won the browser war once Microsoft dispatched Netscape (a victory that was far less certain then than it looks now in retrospect).

Now, Microsoft is investing heavily in OpenAI, the generative AI force behind ChatGPT, while Google is hanging its hat on Bard. At stake, especially for Google, could be the future of the search business that underpins Google’s success.

Generative AI is expected to be at least as disruptive as the arrival of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) was back in the 1980s and ‘90s. But it has far more potential, especially now that we have what looks to be a solid date for when the Singularity could occur (when computers begin to outperform people). According to the latest estimate, we have perhaps until the end of this decade to prepare for the Singularity, with huge implications for employment, staffing, and business productivity. 

How Google got blindsided

When you start out in business school, one of the first lessons you learn is about the industry you’re in. Professors use examples of failures — like the mistakes  made by buggy makers when cars came to market at the turn of the 20th century. Those that failed kept thinking they were in the buggy business; those that survived realized they were in the personal transportation business, allowing them to pivot to making car bodies and keep the lights on. 

One of Google’s central problems is that it doesn’t seem to realize it’s in the ad business, so it tends to spend money on anything but the technologies needed to assure its success. Google just doesn’t seem all that interested in investing in the future of its related platforms. Much of the time, its moves start out well funded, then get increasingly starved over time. That’s effectively what’s happened to search. 

Google was blindsided because protecting search only became important when it realized Microsoft was going to use ChatGPT to challenge Google’s leadership. Google should have anticipated this and worked to advance search more aggressively so Microsoft couldn’t justify the expense of the challenge. Instead, it treated search like a cash-cow — and now it’s paying the price.

The irony is that this is what Google did to Microsoft when it leapfrogged Microsoft in browsers. Both companies failed to recognize the strategic importance of their efforts because neither generates revenue directly. In addition, Google lacks the operational knowledge about the industry it dominates, putting its domination at risk.

If Microsoft invests and executes sharply — never a sure bet with any company —it has its best chance yet to displace Google. 

Next up, the Singularity?

There are still two major AI camps: those that believe that it will replace people and those that believe it can enhance how people work. Generative AI is an excellent platform to highlight this because we can see how it could be used to do the work people do or to enhance the work people do. So far, its ability to operate in place of a human is mediocre, at best. But it is improving quickly, which suggests this base performance will increase dramatically by the end of the decade. 

On the other hand, as a tool, it is doing far better — and those that learn how to best use it as a tool will be better able to defend their jobs against AI displacement than those who don’t. If we want a future where AI enhances rather than replaces us, then pushing its use as a qualitative collaboration tool would make the most sense and should be encouraged.

Seeing it as an employee replacement, as  some companies appear to be doing at scale, or outright blocking its use, will have negative impacts on both business and the viability of human employment long term. 

Google wasn’t ready for Microsoft’s move to integrate generative AI into Bing largely because Google’s leaders don’t understand the ad market and because it didn’t fund search commensurate with its importance to the company. That said, with both companies now pushing generative AI, disruptions based on using it will occur. The biggest potential disruption would be the arrival of the Singularity sooner than anyone expected.

We are not close to being ready.

Quickly using generative AI to enhance the quality of the work instead of the quantity will help us be best prepared for the coming Singularity — and more likely to survive it. 

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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