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Google

Google faces people problems as focus shifts to artificial intelligence race

Creating faceless algorithms used to automate many human tasks is at the core of the company’s success, yet the giant has had to rely on a rapidly growing workforce to help propel it into the future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 8:20pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 8:20pm

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai recently declared that artificial intelligence fuelled by powerful computers was more important to humanity than fire or electricity. And yet the search giant increasingly faces a variety of messy people problems as well.

The company has vowed to employ thousands of human checkers just to catch rogue YouTube posters, Russian bots and other purveyors of unsavory content. It’s also on a buying spree to find office space for its burgeoning workforce in pricey Silicon Valley.

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For a company that built its success on using faceless algorithms to automate many human tasks, this focus on people presents something of a conundrum. Yet it’s also a necessary one as lawmakers ramp up the pressure on Google to deter foreign powers from abusing its platforms and its YouTube unit draws fire for offensive videos, particularly ones aimed at younger audiences.

In the latest quarter alone, Google parent Alphabet Inc. added 2,009 workers, for a total of 80,110. Over the last three years, it hired a net 2,245 people per quarter on average. That’s nearly 173 per week, or 25 people per day.

While there have been some concerns, we’re working really hard to address them and respond strongly.
Sundar Pichai

Some of the extra workers this year will be part of Google’s pledge to have 10,000 people across the company snooping out videos and other material that violate the company’s policies – but which computers can’t catch on their own. That programme will lead to what Google calls “significant growth ” in personnel.

Google will take on even more workers in the current quarter now that it has closed its $1.1 billion purchase of part of hardware maker HTC, bringing on-board the 2,000-plus engineers who worked on the Pixel smartphone line.

Pichai spoke bullishly last week about content-checkers hiring, saying the investments now set the company up to capture growth in the future – in the same call with investors that he touted self-driving vehicles developed by Alphabet’s Waymo unit, which aim to do away with human drivers entirely.

For instance, Pichai says he sees consumers increasingly watching YouTube videos on connected TVs in the living room, a lucrative segment of growth for the digital video advertising that helps power Google’s growth.

After controversies over YouTube stars who made anti-Semitic comments or showed video of someone who had apparently died by suicide, Google has tightened its standards. It has limited which YouTube channels can serve up ads; vowed to manually review every video in its most popular channels for 18-to-34-year-olds; and will pay outside companies to ensure that brands don’t have their ads turn up next to unsuitable videos.

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“While there have been some concerns, we’re working really hard to address them and respond strongly,” Pichai says.

Some analysts aren’t so sure. Collin Colburn, an analyst with market researcher Forrester, wonders how much of the recent changes are just window dressing at a company for whom hiring thousands of people amounts to little more than pocket change.

“I wonder if it’s more of a move of optics rather than practicality,” Colburn says, noting Google’s “massive” double-digit revenue growth and cash hoard of US$102 billion.