An interview with Alan Emtage

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On the 28th November 2017 I was lucky enough to interview Alan Emtage, inventor of the Internet Search Engine. The interview took place in front of an audience at Publicis London. Here is the interview in full.

Jim Boulton and Alan Emtage

JIM BOULTON
Thanks very much for coming to 64 Bit’s byte-size exhibition of the Web’s lost past. We’re very lucky to have Alan Emtage here, the inventor of the search engine. Alan’s been super generous with his time. He flew in from Barcelona yesterday, on his birthday, we’re doing the interview today, he’s flying back to Spain tomorrow, then the States on Thursday and Barbados Monday. Thank you very much Alan, it’s much appreciated.

Whilst the 64 Bits exhibition is about the web, the websites, the computers, and the browsers – the hardware and software is front and centre – it’s actually more about the stories and ideas behind the websites. It’s about the people and the cultures that created the web, so alongside the websites, I like to interview the people that created them.

I first heard about Alan’s story when I was researching my book a few years ago. I was chatting to my neighbour, who’s from Barbados, and I said, ‘Did you know the guy who invented the search engine was from Barbados?’ He said, ‘No, what’s his name?’ I said, ‘It’s Alan…’ he interrupted, ‘Alan Emtage? I went to school with him, he was the only kid with a computer.’

64 Bits Byte size Publicis

JIM BOULTON
Alan, you invented the search engine! Can you tell us a story about how a young man from Barbados ended up at McGill University and invented a technology that changed everybody’s lives?

ALAN EMTAGE
Barbados is pretty small. It’s 280,000 people or so, and it’s a great place to grow up. It’s safe, and the education system is great, but I had travelled quite a bit and I really wanted to leave the country to go to university. Really, the three choices in Barbados are England, Canada, or the United States.

I lived in England when I was a kid, I didn’t have great memories of the weather, I can deal with cold I just can’t deal with grey. England does grey really, really well. I didn’t want to do that. America, for various reasons, it’s very expensive, and also a lot of universities in America are in tiny, university towns and I really wanted to be in the city, so long story short…. I ended up at McGill doing a computer science degree as an undergraduate, and not wanting to go back to Barbados that soon, I decided to stay there and do a graduate degree.

McGill year book 1987

I ended up in System Administration for the School of Computer Science, being the person responsible for finding free software for that school, for those staff and the students. You know, necessity is the mother of invention, and really, there was no great vision behind the first Internet search engine. It was done because I needed something to perform that function for me, to do the kind of work that I was doing. Once we discovered that there was demand in the wider Internet community, it became the world’s first Internet search engine, but there was no broad vision behind it.

JIM BOULTON
This was a project that you did under the RADAR. The upper echelons of the University didn’t know what you were doing?

ALAN EMTAGE
We concealed it from them because we knew that they didn’t know what the Internet was. The Internet was introduced into Canada, into McGill, in 1986. It was the second Internet link into Canada. The University of British Colombia was the first, two weeks before, and the people who controlled the purse strings, the resources, they had no idea what the Internet was. This is 30 years ago, and we knew that if they discovered that we were basically giving away university resources to the general public, they would probably shut it down. The concept of having resources that every Tom, Dick, and Harry off the street could use, particularly in a university setting where budgets are tight, and you have to answer to multiple constituencies as to how you’re spending their money, we were just not willing to take the risk. So, we just didn’t tell them.

That went on for a while, I’m guessing probably a year-ish, something like that, and we had a director, a very proper director from the School of Computer Science, who ended being complimented at a conference, and told how generous McGill was with its resources, and how we had provided this wonderful facility to the Internet. He had absolutely no idea what the guy was talking about, but in the currency that he traded in, this was something that was viewed as beneficial. He came back and said, ‘What the hell is this? What are you guys doing?’ We explained it to him, and because it was… viewed positively outside of the university, we were allowed to continue. Actually, we got their blessing. It wasn’t just benign neglect, they actually started to encourage the project.

JIM BOULTON
Can you describe how the search engine, Archie, worked? It predates the Web, it was 1989 when you first created Archie, can you tell us how it worked, and how closely it compares to the functionality of today’s search engines?

ALAN EMTAGE
Well, the basic functionality remains the same. You have a crawling phase, a retrieval phase where you pull the information in, and an indexing phase, where you build the data structures that allow the search, and then you have the ability to search. So, those are the three phases that Archie had. The Web, which came afterwards, adds another layer before the retrieval, which is discovery, but in the Internet anonymous FTP archives, we didn’t have that phase. There was no way to discover new resources, so resources had to be manually discovered. Beyond that, all the other search engines followed that same pattern. You go out, you retrieve the information, you index it, and you allow people to search. With the invention of the Web, you have the ability to discover things that you didn’t previously know, because of hypertext links between websites. You can index a website, and see how it points to other websites, and then go and index them. So, that was the addition that the Web brought, hyperlinks.

JIM BOULTON
So, ranking the results and making the results more meaningful?

ALAN EMTAGE
Well, that was Google’s genius. People forget that there were a lot of search engines between Archie and Google. Everybody thinks of Google as being the search engine, but Google’s genius was to harness human knowledge and use that to provide more relevant results. So, the PageRank algorithm, which basically defines what Google is, ranks results higher if a lot of hyperlinks point to that particular result. Humans are the ones that are sending out those links, so it harnessed human decision-making in their results, and that’s what makes Google kind of look like magic. You know, having been there from the beginning, I still marvel sometimes at the results that Google can throw up, because you type in two or three words of what you’re looking for, and 95% of the time, they come up with results that are relevant. That’s not computers making the decision, they are harnessing human decisions to bring back results.

JIM BOULTON
I mentioned the exhibition is not just being about the websites, but about the people behind the websites. It’s also a celebration of the spirit of the time. Openness, collaboration, inclusiveness, knowledge sharing, which are all things that you embraced when creating Archie. Like any good parent, you released Archie into the world, freely, for it to grow and become something, you didn’t patent it. How do you feel about that decision now, and can you explain why you made that decision at the time?

ALAN EMTAGE
It is by far the most often asked question I get. Why am I not a billionaire? Listen, I would love to have $100 billion, it would be fantastic. Actually, I have no great desire to be a billionaire, to be very honest with you, I don’t want the headaches that would come with that… I don’t want to be constantly viewed as a target for kidnapping, and all kinds of stuff that comes along with that, but back to the point. The reason that we didn’t patent the algorithms was largely because we did not want to strangle the baby in the crib. That was our main motivation for not patenting. We thought that if we did that, it would have a chilling effect on this new and dynamic industry.

Also, we came from an academic background in which commercial exploitation, even though nowadays it’s very common in universities, if you discover something, if you develop something, if you have original research, universities work very hard at getting their researchers to commercialise their discoveries, universities get a piece of the action, they get revenues from it, and so on. That was less of a mentality 30 years ago, and as academics, we viewed this as a new field that had a tremendous amount of potential, that we did not want to stifle.

We existed in the environment of the National Science Foundation Network, which is what the Internet was at the time, that did not allow commercial applications. The entire ethos in which we worked was one of community contributions. This was our contribution to the community. I don’t think I would do anything differently, to be honest with you. I was never part of the Silicon Valley set, and I never really wanted to be part of that set, but yes, I mean, it’s allowed me to live a lifestyle that I’m quite comfortable with, and the fact that I don’t have a jet, I don’t really care. There are more important things in life.

JIM BOULTON
It seems to me that with trolls, spam, phishing scams, mass surveillance and fake news, it’s more important than ever to promote the original values of the web. I just wondered if you thought there was any hope for that collaborative, open spirit coming back?

ALAN EMTAGE
I don’t think it’s gone anywhere, I don’t think it’s gone away. There’s a tremendous amount of donated work on the Internet every day of the year. You know, most of the Internet, 95%, perhaps close to 100% of the Internet runs on open-source software. That software is largely supported by volunteers who are not making any money off it, who do it for the love, or for a currency that we may not recognise, they do it for recognition. It may not be for monetary gain, but they’re doing it because they want to contribute to the community, and they get something out of the fact that their contributions are recognised. There’s nothing wrong with that, I mean, there have been mentors or sponsors throughout history, be it for art, music, or whatever. So I don’t think that spirit’s gone away. I think it gets buried under a lot of crass commercialism, but the Internet would not exist, would not survive without probably millions, or tens of millions of hours donated every year. So, I don’t think it’s gone away.

It’s like plumbing. Nobody thinks about plumbing until it goes wrong, but it’s there, and it works every day and it makes your life liveable, and that’s very much what the open source community is. It’s the infrastructure, it’s the girders in the houses, it’s the plumbing and the wiring in the walls. You just don’t notice it, but it’s there.

JIM BOULTON
Incredibly, you didn’t just invent the search engine, you also chaired the committee that defined the URL. You were at both ends of the equation. When you search for something, four billion searches a day, you come to a URL, Alan’s also the person who defined that structure. Being the bookends of that daily experience is quite an achievement.

ALAN EMTAGE
Well, to be fair, Sir Tim Berners-Lee had drawn on an existing practice for URLs before he created the web, and we then took what he had done and standardised it, because it was not fully-formed, we worked with Tim closely for years…. to remove the ambiguity.

There are a lot of really, picky, technical details that go into creating that kind of protocol that are not immediately obvious. How do you deal with spaces, how do you deal with… there are all kinds of stuff that are not clear until you start to use it, until you start to extend it, because although we nowadays only tend to use HTTP or HTTPS, the protocol is much larger than that. It handles FTP and it handle Gopher and it handles files, but most people won’t recognise that stuff. So, it’s a much larger protocol than just the ones that we use for the web, and it all needed to be defined so that everything could talk to one other, everything could work with one another. That took us probably eighteen months, maybe two years, to bring that all together.

JIM BOULTON
How did you get that job?

ALAN EMTAGE
Volunteered for it. It’s one of those things where, you know, you step up to the plate. The chair of the IETF committee doesn’t have control. It’s more of a gatekeeper role, it’s more of a traffic cop role. You’re trying to organise things rather than lay down the law. So, for me, I knew all the players, I had good relationships with all of the people involved, so it was a fairly easy role for me to fall into. It was fun, for the most part.

JIM BOULTON
I’ve read some of the minutes of the meetings. It sounds like fun. So, my first question is, www, is that your fault?

ALAN EMTAGE
No. That’s not my fault. Remember, at the time, computers tended to be expensive, so you didn’t have a lot of them. That happened through the ’90s when they became much more affordable, but you had the base domain, McGill.edu or McGill.ca. In order to enter where the FTP site was, you didn’t want to create a unique name, because nobody would be able to find it, there was no way of discovering these things. So, FTP.McGill.ca was the convention to use to find the FTP site for McGill. Gopher.McGilll.ca, www.McGill.ca. So, it was just a convention to allow people to access the site without having to know in advance, if you called it binky.McGill.ca, nobody could find it, right? So, that’s where that convention came from, so that people could formulaically discover what the various information services were named.

JIM BOULTON
Reading through those minutes, I saw that there was a big discussion about whether a prefix to the URL should be URL: and then the web address. Apparently, it was. a split decision, but the majority of you were in favour of having URL: before the web address.

ALAN EMTAGE
The people who were against it, if I remember, and I have a terrible memory for this kind of stuff, and I haven’t looked at those minutes in twenty years, so don’t hold me to this, but Mark Andreessen was against that. I think Tim was against that as well. We also wanted, in that discussion, I believe, delimiters at the end of URLs. There was some talk about having angle brackets, so that in printed text, you knew where the URL ended. Yes, I mean, you know, it’s like making sausages and making laws, it’s a messy process. It was also way before browsers existed. So, we did not have the concept of, for example, nowadays, if you type a URL into your mail, the mail reader, typically, will make it into a link for you. We didn’t have that kind of concept. We didn’t realise that these things were going to be ubiquitous and that the software was going to recognise it. We wanted ways to say to the software, ‘Hey, this is a URL.’

JIM BOULTON
I read a funny comment from you in the minutes. I think the majority wanted you to write URL: before the web address, but, Tim Berners-Lee put his foot down and kicked back against it, and your comment is, ‘Oh God : ) I don’t want to re-open this debate. Really, really, I don’t. Let me see if I can try it this way. Maybe they won’t kill me.’ So, Tim got his way in the end. Did Tim normally get his way?

ALAN EMTAGE
Tim was really the only person who had some kind of vision of where this was going, or a more expansive vision. I will also say, and he and I can have this debate at some point, but I will also say he had no idea of what it would actually become. None of us did, and I think anybody who says that they saw where this was going… we didn’t have that kind of imagination. We really, honestly didn’t. We knew we were doing something big. We did not think we would change the course of human nature, which is effectively what has happened. As expansive as Tim’s vision was, I would challenge him to say that he knew where this was going. None of us did. It’s much larger than any of us could have imagined. I mean, there are web servers in your fridge nowadays. We never thought of that.

JIM BOULTON
The world wide web, though, gives some indication about where it could go?

ALAN EMTAGE
Yes, but his vision was, you know, born in the environment in which that was created, which was CERN and sharing academic and scientific papers and allowing that kind of stuff, and maybe a wider thing about news or whatever, but the idea that your car would have a web server, that your hearing aid would have a web server, is not, I don’t think, anything that Tim imagined, that it would become ubiquitous. I don’t think any of us did. I know none of us did. We never talked about it.

JIM BOULTON
So, when you were chairing this working group that was defining the URL, I think you’d set up Bunyip Information Systems, together with Peter Deutsch.

ALAN EMTAGE
Bunyip was before that. Peter Deutsch was my friend and my boss at McGill University, he had his degree in computer science systems, and we ended up going to a conference in Newfoundland, and I remember on the way back, we were driving back to the airport and he said, ‘You know, we really should create a company to do this, because it would allow us to separate ourselves from the university and do what we wanted to do.’

JIM BOULTON
Create a commercial version of Archie?

Archie

ALAN EMTAGE
Yes, create a commercial version of Archie, and give us some freedom from the university, which up to that point had been very supportive. Once it became clear that this was something important, the university actually was very supportive. I committed to five years of working with this company, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. This was 1991, something like that, so I would’ve been 26. I didn’t want to say I’m in this forever kind of thing, so we decided to form the company, with McGill’s blessing, and we did. We incorporated it. It took us a while, it took us a year I think, before we got offered some stuff, but yes. That was the impetus for writing Archie version three, which is what you’ve got on the screen over there, which was a complete rewrite of the system.

JIM BOULTON
So, about that time, presumably other search engines started to emerge?

ALAN EMTAGE
Not really, actually. Archie owned the FTP space, and nobody tried to do that. Well, Gopher came along. Mark McCahill at the University of Minnesota created Gopher, which has been lost and overshadowed by the Web, but was a big thing for a while, particularly in academic and library communities.

JIM BOULTON
Didn’t they introduce a license fee?

ALAN EMTAGE
They did at one point, I don’t think it was very successful. Gopher was like hyperlinks, but it was hierarchical, you’d go to a menu, you’d choose one of the items on the menu, it would go to the next level, X number of levels deep until you finally got to whatever document you were looking for. After Archie, which of course I’ve said a billion times had nothing to do with the comic book character, which I loathe, Gopher came along, and somebody created, I don’t remember who, created a search engine for Gopher called Veronica, which was Archie’s girlfriend. It was Very Easy, Rodent-Oriented, something, I mean, they made up this thing to make the acronym for it, but it was cute. So, Veronica came along for Gopher.

Brewster Kahle had created WAIS, early on. Thinking Machines was trying to sell these massively powerful of computers, and he created WAIS, which is the Wide Area Information Service. So, there was Brewster Kahle for WAIS, Mark McCahill for Gopher, Tim for the World Wide Web, and me for Archie, and we were the four information services. So, Gopher had Veronica, and Brewster had WAIS, and then the first web search engine was, I believe, Martin Koster and ALIWEB, ALIWEB stands for Archie-Like Indexing of the Web. So, they came along, you’re taxing my memory, ALIWEB probably came along in 1994, I would think, inspired by Archie. Then, you got a cascade of Lycos, AltaVista, Inktomi, there was a whole bunch of them.

WAIS

JIM BOULTON
It’s interesting you mention Gopher because when we were looking at the Tim’s first browser earlier, there’s previous and next functionality, but it’s previous and next from a document-centric point of view, rather than a user-centric point of view, and you were saying that was how Gopher used to work.

ALAN EMTAGE
Well, that’s also how the first web interface worked. The first web interface was, if you believe it, if you could imagine it, it was a set of text which was the page, there were no graphics, that was light years away. It was just pure text, and you would have text, and you would have a number next to each word that was a hyperlink. So, ‘click here’ would have ‘click here’ in regular text, and it would have a number next to it, and then there was a menu underneath that text that showed you where that link pointed off to. So, you would click here, and you would go down, and you’d have (3). You would go down, and you’d see (3), and it would show you what that was, and you’d click on (3), and it would take you to that link.

JIM BOULTON
So, what interface was that?

ALAN EMTAGE
It was Tim’s first interface. There was no browser. This was command line. This was pure as command line gets. Way pre-browser. When I saw the first browser, when I first saw Mosaic it was shocking. I remember sitting around with a bunch of us at Bunyip, sitting around a computer terminal, looking at this thing, and it had a graphic on. The graphic was part of the document. It really was, it was shocking.

JIM BOULTON
And you were true to your word, after five years, which takes us to about 1996, the start of the dot-com gold rush, after Netscape floated in in 1995. Despite being perfectly poised to take advantage of that gold rush, you quit to go travelling around the South Pacific?

ALAN EMTAGE
Yes. I went backpacking in the South Pacific. I burnt out. I was travelling about 170,000 miles a year. I was doing a lot of talks, a lot of keynote addresses, working for NATO in the newly opened Eastern Bloc, and I just got tired of it. So, I said, ‘This is my five years.’ Actually, it was six at that point, it was 1996, I bought a backpack, and went travelling in the South Pacific. It was fun.

JIM BOULTON
Then you came back, and you joined Mediapolis?

ALAN EMTAGE
No, I joined another company called USTM. Well, it was a client of Mediapolis, and they were opening a new company in New York, and they wanted me to be the CTO. So, I picked up and I left for New York City. I was kind of over Montreal at that point. There comes a point where the -40 degree winters, it doesn’t matter what scale you’re in, minus 40 is minus 40. It gets a little much. I’d been in Montreal for fourteen years at that point, and I wanted a change of scenery, and they offered me a job in New York, so I moved to New York and worked for USTM for about a year, and left that when that folded, and then joined Mediapolis, which was a very small web company. I became friendly with the principals and decided that I wanted something a little more low-key.

JIM BOULTON
You’re still there, nineteen years later, so it must have a lot going for it.

ALAN EMTAGE
Yes, I mean, it’s three of us really. We get to choose the work that we do. It’s fulfilling, it’s fun. The kind of work that we do, is that every time we get a new client, often we get a new industry, so, you get to learn about a whole new industry. You have to understand the industry, because of the kind of sites we do. We don’t do brochure sites, we do involved, database-driven websites, and so if it’s classical music, you have to learn about classical music. Whatever it is, there’s a need to educate yourself. Every time you do one of these things, you basically have to do a deep dive into it to do it properly, to understand the issues involve, and that’s something that I love. I’d describe myself as a new experience junkie, and I like learning, I like the deep dive. I like learning about this stuff, especially if I’ve not done it before.

JIM BOULTON
Another thing the exhibition has asked to do is to tell the stories of the unsung heroes of the web. You were inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame a couple of months ago. About time. Congratulations! But I think you’ve still got quite a low profile, for somebody who’s created something so fundamental to our daily lives, and I was having a Google around, and I saw that McGill university had done a survey a few years ago (2011), to find the greatest McGillians of all time. They were looking for the McGillian that had the most significant impact on the university and the world at large, and I noticed that you were not on the list. William Shatner was on the list. It was a three-way tie for the award, Leonard Cohen who we all know, Thomas Chang who invented the artificial blood cell, and Nobel Prizewinner, Ernest Rutherford, who was the father of nuclear physics. That’s not that long ago, 2011. Has anything changed in the last six years? Is your profile growing?

ALAN EMTAGE
I don’t know. I don’t think so. McGill, at one point, they did have a thing on the website called The Greatest McGillians. I don’t really think that was a vote. I think the university had created this. I think the vote may have come after. I was on that list. One thing about having a last name that begins with E, there were very few last names that begin with E, so you tend to pop up. I’m not big on self-promotion, it’s not part of my personality.

JIM BOULTON
People from McGill University have visited the exhibition, and they have no idea the search engine was invented at the university they studied at. I would imagine that the university would be shouting about that. My neighbour from Barbados had no idea the person who invented the search engine was from Barbados. It struck me as surprising.

ALAN EMTAGE
Well, it’s one of those things that, I don’t know. I mean, does anybody know the name of the guy who invented the transistor? There are many world-changing inventions that are out there, that the inventors aren’t really household names.

JIM BOULTON
Yes, but the search engine?

ALAN EMTAGE
Sir Tim showed up at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, 90% of the world, as he sat on stage, said who the hell is that? So, you know, Tim, arguably has an even larger impact than I have, and they didn’t know who Tim was. His name is way more up there than mine is.

JIM BOULTON
I started following you on Facebook, which seems to be your publishing platform of choice. Every day, you post up links to several different articles around any kind of subject, but reoccurring themes seem to be artificial intelligence and robotics. Given your contribution to an open Web, the fact you use Facebook as a platform seems slightly contradictory, given that it’s a closed platform. I just wondered if you had any comments on why you’ve chosen Facebook as your publishing platform.

ALAN EMTAGE
It’s because nobody would come to a blog. Largely, I mean, I use Facebook as a blog. I use Facebook because it’s the platform that people will come to on a regular basis. The stuff that I post is primarily stuff that I read that I find interesting, and that my friends, would find interesting as well. I don’t know what the totals are, probably 2,000 people? Given Facebook’s algorithms and who sees what, because it doesn’t show everybody everything. I suppose technically it’s a closed platform, although anybody can get it. It provides the widest audience, is why I chose it. I also cross-post to Twitter, but I pay no attention to Twitter whatsoever.

JIM BOULTON
Yes, I’ve noticed you have never retweeted me.

ALAN EMTAGE
I don’t pay any attention to Twitter. I mean, Facebook is one thing. Twitter can be a cesspool. It really is. It’s toxic, and I choose to use Twitter as a publish-only environment. I don’t engage in discussions on Twitter, just because it devolves so quickly. Yes, you learn that mistake early on, and it’s just not worth it. The trolling is horrible.

JIM BOULTON
I was reading recently, there’s now 2 billion searches a day on Facebook, which is about half the amount on Google, and it’s grown 33% a year, and I think Google is growing at 10% a year. So, my back of an envelope calculation tells me that in four or five years’ time, there will be more searches on Facebook than there are on Google.

ALAN EMTAGE
That’s one of those figures that I think needs a lot of context. I do a lot of searches on Facebook, but it’s never for content. It’s for people, or it’s for photographs or something. I’m never looking for news on Facebook.

JIM BOULTON
So, if Facebook’s not the future of search, what is?

ALAN EMTAGE
Here’s the problem with search. Search is currently wholly opaque. You have no idea how they come up with the results. If you’re looking for an apple pie recipe, probably not a big deal. Most apple pie recipes are generally the same. If they are trying to promote, in particular, a company’s book or something, they can manipulate it so that you get that.

The opacity of search is a problem, and it’s going to be an increasingly serious problem, because Google are being more like Yahoo!, you have no idea what criteria they’re using. The sponsored links are obvious, somebody paid them to put the link up there, fine, whatever. You can choose to ignore it, you can choose to click on it. What happens if they try to shift election results, or the results of queries about politicians or their policies? You have no idea what their motivations are, be it money, be it ideological, be it political.

How many people go past the first page of Google search results? It’s something minuscule, 10%? I don’t remember the figures, but it’s nothing. If it doesn’t come up on the first page, people don’t go further. That is incredibly powerful, and without some kind of accountability, we don’t know what those results are, or what their aim is, what they’re trying to accomplish. I think we are depending on the kindness of strangers in a way that is going to be very detrimental to us in the future. I am by no means saying that Google is doing this, I’m saying their capacity to do this is unfettered, and we are not paying enough attention to that.

The future of search is probably AI, it kind of does already, if you use a very broad knowledge graph. Those kind of things are very rudimentary AI, but we are playing with technologies that we fundamentally don’t understand. We have created them, but the secret at the heart of a lot of these technologies, particularly as AI becomes more advanced, is nobody knows how they work. They really, honestly don’t understand how they work. Machine learning algorithms create neural networks, and from neural networks, you know, blah blah blah, we don’t know how they work. We don’t know how they come up with the results. The results may be good, they may be what we’re looking for. We don’t know how it got there, we can’t explain that, and that is the ultimate black box. That’s a problem. You’re playing in some dangerous territory there, because it’s open to manipulation by the people that program it, and it’s open to manipulation by the programs themselves.

JIM BOULTON
When I’m trying to get sponsorship for the show, when I’m talking to tech brands, they’re often worried about the fact it’s backward looking, and so I’m really keen to see what lessons we can learn about that future. On that basis, Nich Headlong and I have created a bit of software called Find-Next, which looks for some of the common denominators behind the digital innovations of the last 50 years.

 

One of the reoccurring things seems to be that innovation is contagious, and that if you’re one step removed from an innovator, you’re more likely to be an innovator yourself. Jack Dorsey is an original employee of Blogger, Tim Berners-Lee’s parents built the Feranti Mark 1, the first commercial computer, Ivan Sutherland taught a load of people who went on to be fantastic innovators. I just wondered, are you directly connected to any other innovators?

ALAN EMTAGE
I have no idea. Honestly, nobody’s ever asked me that question before. I am not aware of any. I don’t think I come from a line of innovators, that I’m aware of. Part of the problem is because I’ve had a fairly low profile, I’m not sure if I’ve inspired any people in that way, so no.

JIM BOULTON
I really like some of the other connections, some of which might not be that surprising. Innovators are often unconventional, innovators often do things for the love rather than the money, they’re hands on, they collaborate rather than compete, those are the common themes. There are a couple that are interesting, accomplished musicians and immigrants over-index. You tick a lot of those boxes. Are you a musician?

ALAN EMTAGE
Yes. I sang in the Montreal Symphony for seven years. Anything that makes you think or feel that you are not running with the herd gives you an opportunity to think outside the box. Lateral thinking, all that kind of stuff. Racial minorities, and religious minorities perhaps, and certainly there is no shortage of Jewish innovation throughout the centuries. Certainly considered outsiders, and ostracised in many ways, or have been. So, yes. I think being an outsider is what you’re actually keying on there, right? Immigrants, racial minorities, sexual minorities. In the context of computers, women, but a lot of this stuff requires being enabled. It’s great to have an idea, it’s not going to go anywhere unless you are provided with an environment that allows you to develop it.

Something that I think about all the time, in South America, in the Andes, in the depths of the Congo, in rural India, how many potential Einsteins are there out there? How many potential Steve Jobs are out there, who just never had the opportunity to flourish, to blossom? They’re not planted in a soil that allows them to grow. We are 7 plus billion people in the world, and you know. Not to put too fine a point on it, it can’t be just the straight white males that are the smart people. That’s largely a function of opportunity. Education, capital, you know, all of this comes around opportunity. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment which was conducive, for which education was highly valued, in a family that was well-off and relatively prominent, to facilitate the things that I did. The vast majority of the population of the world doesn’t have those opportunities, so you’re keying off outsider, which is what the common denominator is there.

JIM BOULTON
Last question before we open out to the audience. Back in the day, it was quite common to sign off your email with a quote, and you still do. I’ll read that quote out. ‘If future generations are to remember us with more gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we were through with it.’ It’s a Lyndon B. Johnson quote. What miracles of technology are you excited about, and which elements of the world as it was created should we preserve?

ALAN EMTAGE
All technology is a double-edged sword. There is no technology that is created that is either good or evil inherently. The car that drives you to work, that can be used as a weapon. The plane that takes you to your vacation can be used for war, right? AI fascinates me. The robot revolution, as I call it, I find it just fascinating, and I think it is going to upend the world. I think it is going to transform the world in ways that we have no idea what is coming. Our policy makers are not even remotely engaged with this, and there is a tsunami coming that is going to wash away much of what we know, in terms of our economy, and our culture, and the basic ways of living. It is going to put, I think over the next 20, 30, 40 years, it’s going to probably put 90% of us out of work, and we are not having the discussions that we need to have about this. What does humanity look like, when it has no work? So many people define themselves by their work, and their ability to make a difference, and provide for their families. All of that stuff has the potential of literally going away.

It can also be used for tremendous evil. I can well imagine more authoritarian countries using AI and big data, and the information gathered from social media, and from listening in on phone calls or what people browse, whatever your sources are, to manipulate the population into doing exactly what they want. And there any number of technologies. CRISPR, in the biological realm, will transform biology in ways that we have no idea. There are any number of these major world-changing technologies that we’re just on the cusp of, right now. It is going to create a world, if we survive it, that is going to be unrecognisable I think, in 50 years. Now, I’m not going to be around in 50 years, I seriously doubt, but I think we have challenges ahead of us, in terms of technology, that we are not even close to addressing.

I love to travel. I have been to 90 somewhat countries, I love deserts as much as I love forests, mountains as much as I love reefs. We are changing this world, you know, in a way that is going to be permanent, and I think ultimately, we’ll put our own species in peril, because we continue to breed like rabbits, and we don’t have the carrying capacity. Earth does not have the carrying capacity for it. Places like China and India want to, rightly, join the ranks of the developed world, and use the resources in the way we have been using it in the West. It is just not sustainable. I would love to see the Amazon survive, I would love to see the Great Barrier Reef survive, I would love to see Kilimanjaro have glaciers, but I fear that none of those will hold true.

JIM BOULTON
I was hoping for an uplifting end.

ALAN EMTAGE
I’m a realist. I’m not a pessimist, but you know, we were having a conversation before the talk down here, and I think we are on a reflection point in the world, similar to what we were at the end of the Second World War. If you view the First and Second World Wars as basically one war, you know, part one and two, that upended the entire world order. We are now, I think, in a very similar situation. I think Trump’s election, and Brexit, and the rise of the populist right, and people like Erdogan in Turkey, and a strongman in China, all of these things are all pointing to a reordering of what we, who are in our middle-age, 40s and 50s, have grown up expecting. You throw the Internet, and technology, and biological manipulation into that mix, and I don’t think we have any idea what comes of it. We do not have a good history, as a species, with change. Especially, unpredictable change. So, I am willing to see what happens, but you know, we’re living in a scary time.

JIM BOULTON
Has anybody in the audience got a question for Alan?

JONATHAN MOORE
Going back to the idea of what potentially will happen within the context of search, I’m wondering if there’s any kind of room within the industry, or within a global movement, of there being an ISO-based search technology. Something which is neutral, which is less corporate-based, which can actually be used for more neutral effect, and less prone to the misdirection that has been mentioned. Could there be any kind of movement back towards the more old-school university kind of feeling, a more independent-based search engine?

ALAN EMTAGE
I could imagine a world, I suppose, in which the government takes over, basically, the plumbing, takes over the infrastructure, as they do with the garbage collection, and most roads. Pick your country and it’ll vary somewhat, but the problem with that is that governments tend not to be very innovative, so you calcify whatever they’re doing. They don’t move very quickly, they’re not very responsive, you know, that kind of thing. You’re not going to get neutrality if money is the object. If it’s a for-profit motivation, then you’re not going to be able to get neutrality, because money will always be there…. I think the solution is not so much that, it’s transparency. A solution for a lot of these things, or at least an attempt at a solution for these things is transparency. If we can look and see how these things, these decisions are being made, then we have some sense of what’s motivating it, or at least how the decisions were arrived at, or the results were arrived at. It’s the opaque nature that’s the problem. I have no problem with people making money, that’s great. Make all the money you want, but if the side effect is then to try to get particular governments elected, then that crosses lines. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, transparency is your best attempt at that, because I fear that any state-driven approach is going to fail. Particularly in something like technology.

JONATHAN MOORE
Isn’t the difficult thing though, bearing in mind we’ve seen with the Paradise Papers, even though when a spotlight is actually shone on something which is effectively corrupt or broken, you still don’t get that transparency. Is there any realistic way that can happen?

ALAN EMTAGE
What is the cure for lethargy? You know, what is the cure to a populace who wants to keep their head down and just get their stuff done. I can give you any number of examples of people who have voted for radical change, who used Brexit for example, who said, ‘I didn’t think it was about X, I thought it was about immigrants, that’s what motivated me.’ I’ve said on many occasions, if the Greeks saw what we did with their concept of democracy, they would be appalled, because their concept of democracy was an informed populace. The riff-raff didn’t get the vote, right? You had to be educated, you had to attend the meetings, you had to be engaged socially, you had to be engaged politically with the issues of the day in order to be able to vote. They would be appalled at the idea that every man on the street could walk in and have the same vote. Then, you take it off into another direction. Yes. I wish I had the answer to that.

AMAR PATEL
Who were some of your role models when you were growing up? Did you have role models?

ALAN EMTAGE
Not famous people role models. Probably the most important person for me in my life growing up was my mother’s aunt. My mother’s mother died when she was six and left her, and her little sisters, to be raised by her father’s sisters. These were women that were born at the turn of the century, last century, and the only avenues open to them were to become teachers or nurses. That was it. As good, middle-class, women of mixed race, you did not go to university, other than to learn teaching or nursing. So, I grew up in a household of teachers who valued education very highly.

One aunt in particular, each aunt had adopted one of the daughters, sort of, a special relationship. It was sort of a commune thing, but they had individual relationships. The one who had raised my mother, raised me, and she was very much into science. I would spend hours listening to BBC, a good colonial boy. She would wake me up when there was a comet in the sky. She’d wake me up at four o’clock in the morning, so we could go outside and go and see the comet. She’d take me to the observatory, she would buy me books on science. I had an interest in science, but she fostered it. As a role model, as somebody who was deeply, profoundly inquisitive as to the world around her, who was by social convention prevented from realising her full potential, she made projects out of me, and her students, to instil that kind of curiosity. So, probably the singular biggest role model in my life was her, just because of her intellectual curiosity. That was not something that was in big supply. It was a unique relationship.

AMAR PATEL
We talked about outsiders making very good innovators. Were you an outsider from a young age? Were other people like you as into science as you were?

ALAN EMTAGE
I mean, there were always nerds, yes? I spent an hour this morning on an app, watching the flight line into Heathrow, just because I thought it was fun. It was four o’clock in the morning, I had nothing else to do.

I knew I was gay very early on, and so that made me automatically an outsider in a small, conservative country like Barbados. Barbados is not Jamaica. It doesn’t have that kind of violent homophobia that Jamaica has come to represent over the years. Barbados is a much more benign kind of homophobia. There’s no physical violence, you’re not going to get ostracised. I was not out at school, that would’ve been a problem, but that would be a problem here as well, so you know, that hasn’t been cured. It made me feel like an outsider, certainly, from very early on. I mean, I knew I was gay when I was six, you know? Or five. So, I always felt as an outsider, and so my pursuits were largely solos. I tried to avoid as much social interaction as I could, because that just exposed you to potential problems. I collected coins, I kept fish, I was a ham radio operator, which allowed me socialisation but at a remove. I kept to myself, and I lived in my head a lot, you know. I lived in my head, because I didn’t do sports, and I didn’t want to hang with the crowd because of the dangers there, I didn’t want to expose myself to. So yes, I was an outsider. Otherwise, I was relatively conformist, relatively average in that way, but the sexuality thing definitely kept me separate.

NICO MACDONALD
I was reflecting on a talk by Maria Popova. She gave a talk on BBC Radio four or five years ago, talking about how search engines all have you find things that you know about, and how do you create search engines that can expand your knowledge and find things that you didn’t know you didn’t know? I often observe that we can find information instantly but we can’t find an idea. Google has some very powerful algorithms but if you try to abstract above information, it really doesn’t help you. Do you think that’s an ambition we should have, and a possibility we might realise?

ALAN EMTAGE
What we are losing is serendipity. Google, in its attempt, and I think it’s a valiant attempt to try and give you what you want, is personalising results. So, based on your previous search history, and how much interaction you have with Google… they can mine that information to personalise search results. I don’t know how they’re doing it, going back to the transparency issue, but certainly, there’s a body of information there, data that they can use.

Every now and again, I’ll start a very generic search query, and it intuits where I’m going, because of where I am, or where I’ve been. Most of the time that works fine, but what we’ve lost from that is the joy of the undiscovered. Of finding something that you really didn’t expect. There’s no malice in that. They’re not trying to do this to steer you away from other stuff, they’re trying to give you what they think you want. The problem is, it’s what they think you want, and again, there’s no transparency there. They’re not saying, ‘Hey, here are the personalised results based on all this other data that we have about you. Here’s what we think you’re looking for. And here is a list of results that are totally neutral… this is what somebody that we have no idea, who we don’t have any data on, here are the search results that we would give them.’ You don’t ever get that side-by-side comparison, and we don’t know what that side-by-side comparison looks like anymore, because we’re so far down the rabbit hole. That would be really interesting. What does the average, non-person, what kind of results do they come up with? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not even sure Google knows the answer to that.

The idea that we are so personalising this stuff, we’re so moulding it to make it about us, means that there’s probably a whole world out there that we’re no longer being exposed to. Serendipity is important. It’s a very important thing in life to be able to come across stuff that you had no idea existed. I think we’re losing that.

JIM BOULTON
Thank you very much to the inspiring Alan Emtage, and thanks to everyone for coming.

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