Jeremy Wertheimer on Google’s Latest Innovations in Travel

Ask anybody in the know about Google’s 2011 acquisition of ITA Software and its connection to the search giant’s potential impact on the travel space, and you’ll invariably hear some version of this statement: Jeremy Wertheimer is one super smart guy.

No doubt about that. Wertheimer has a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence and an S.M. (Master of Science) in Computer Science from MIT, as well as a B.E. in Electrical Engineering from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Here’s a brief historical recap. The past: Wertheimer founded ITA Software with partner Richard Aiken in 1996. Fourteen years later, ITA agreed to be acquired by Google. The present: On April 8, 2011, the Justice Department approved the buyout for a reported purchase price of $700 million, and ITA Software came into the Google fold as its travel industry software division. Wertheimer became Google’s vice president of travel. The future: Not even the sky’s the limit.

Wertheimer’s intelligence, visionary perspective, and infectious excitement about technology and scientific advancements and the brave-new-world opportunities they can create, were all evident during his keynote address at The PhoCusWright Conference in mid-November 2012. In it Wertheimer covers five “pivot points” in Google’s involvement in the travel sector, including some fascinating historical perspective.

This article features excerpts from that address, reproduced courtesy of PhoCusWright and edited for length and clarity. Complimentary access to the full video of Wertheimer’s keynote address, and other video content from The PhoCusWright Conference 2012 is available to Travel Weekly PLUS readers by clicking here.

#1 At your fingertips: A geographic and visual sense of place
In 1978 Peter Clay, an MIT undergrad, got access to some new technology that could store thousands of images. What Peter did was he took his 16-millimeter film camera and put it on a dolly and started rolling it down MIT hallways, taking a picture at every step. Then he put these images onto the storage device he had, and he submitted that as his thesis to the Department of Urban Studies. The thesis was entitled, “Surrogate Travel Via Optical Laserdisc.” This was the beginning of the process of virtual tourism.

A little later that year, some of his professors got some money from the Defense Department and they went and descended on Aspen, Colo., and did the same thing. They put a 16-millimeter film camera on the back of a truck, and they drove down the streets of Aspen taking pictures. And people who sat in a chair and looked at what they called ‘movie maps’ were able to get a sense of Aspen before they went there. When they did go to Aspen, they reported having an experience of déjà vu.

This was the beginning of the idea that we can help travelers by giving them some geographic sense, some sense of place, some visual sense, before they actually go there.

Fast-forward to now. Over the last year there have been a number of developments in mapping, including the rollout of indoor mapping soon after last year’s conference, and the rollout this spring of 3D maps for many, many metro areas.

This is the first pivot point. The technology for giving you maps and for giving you access to views of places where you're going to be, to enhance your travel — whether you’re going there for real or whether you’re virtually traveling — now it’s really here. 

#2 Universal character: From facts to conceptual information, in the language of mathematics
bookAbout 350 years ago, there was a bishop, John Wilkins, who is probably best known for his book on universal character. I think he’s about the only guy to ever run a college at both Oxford and Cambridge, and he was also a founder of the Royal Society, the progenitor of all modern scientific societies. Philosophers of his day were interested in universal character — could they replace our human languages, which are ambiguous and people speak lots of different ones, with a mathematical, scientific language so we could say things that were unambiguous and that everybody could understand?

He didn’t know about computers, but about 45 years ago when computer science came of age, this became a very big area — could we represent knowledge in a way that computers could understand in a mathematical way? This was something that we all dreamed of doing back when I was a grad student in Artificial Intelligence, but we couldn't build a system big enough for it to really matter.

This year, Google rolled out a system that has many billions of facts about hundreds of millions of different concepts. Just to give you an idea, if you do a search right now on Scottsdale, so on one side you’ll see the usual kind of thing. On the other side there’s something that’s really materially different, because it’s looking at Scottsdale as an entity, as a concept. 

We have all the facts that we know about it that can be retrieved by the system and displayed. For example, one of them might be the points of interest in Scottsdale. And if we click on something like Camelback Mountain, that's a concept that we know things about, and we can use that to help travelers.

So now you’ve got visual information, geographic information, and conceptual information being brought to bear.

#3 Say what you need: Information for the asking, on a portable device
About 1952, Audrey — not Audrey Hepburn but Audrey the automatic digit-recognition engine at Bell Labs — could recognize speech; it could recognize 10 digits. A few years later, around 1964, at the World’s Fair, IBM showed off a speech-recognition system that could recognize maybe a few dozen words. It's been a dream of computer science for a while that instead of having to interact in a cumbersome way with technology to get answers to questions, you could just ask the computer, and it would tell you.
Editor’s Note: A brief video featuring Google Now followed. As described in Wikipedia, Google Now is “an intelligent personal assistant available for Google's Android operating system. An extension of Android's native Google Search application, Google Now uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of Web services. Along with answering user-initiated queries, Google Now passively delivers information to the user that it predicts they will want, based on their search habits.” 

Now, we’ve got three technologies that have rolled out over the last year that are helpful to travelers. First, we’ve got maps and geographic information; then we’ve got symbolic information that can represent facts about the world that might be interesting to you on your trip and in your travels; and now we have information that’s made available to you through speech recognition and on a device that you can carry with you that’s portable. 

I think we’re looking at some interesting pivot points here. And none of them were around last year when we met [at the 2011 PhoCusWright Conference]. 

#4 At last, an airline reservation system built from scratch
In 1953, about 60 years ago, an American Airlines stewardess — at the time they were stewardesses, not flight attendants — was quite enchanted by the idea that the two passengers sitting in the last row in the flight from LA to New York were both named Smith. And she introduced Mr. C. R. Smith, the man who ran American Airlines, to Mr. Blair Smith, a salesman for IBM who had just been out in L.A. getting training on their brand-new digital computer.

And C. R. Smith asked Blair Smith to stop by American Airlines’ reservation center at LaGuardia Airport, which was completely manual, to see if he thought that there was something that IBM might be able to do about it. This led, over the next few years, to a project to build an airline reservations system.

Back when I was at MIT, we had a professor, a man named Ed Fredkin, who used to go over to Russia, the Soviet Union, back in the day when it wasn’t that easy to go there. And he had different things that he would do over there. One of the things was he wanted to get an old Russian computer to put in a computer museum we were starting in Boston.

He went to the Moscow Academy of Science, and he said, “I’d really like to get the original Russian computer. It’s quite an advance in the field; it’s really a wonderful thing. I’d like to put it in the museum in Boston to honor the history of computer science.” And they said, “Well, that’d be wonderful. That’d be a wonderful thing for Russia. That’s great.” And he kept going year after year, and they would never give him the computer, they would never actually let him take it home. And finally he reached enlightenment; he said, “I understand — it’s still in use.”

I have to say that 20 years ago, when I started looking at these old systems, I had the same feeling: “What an amazing thing, what a triumphal achievement of 1950s, 1960s technology. Wait … it’s still in use?” Ten years ago I had the same feeling, and today I have the same feeling. But finally, in February of this year, we had the opportunity to launch the first new airline reservation system that’s built completely from scratch on modern technology.

And if you want to understand why that matters, well, a lot of the very brilliant things that were done back in 1953 were very sensible at the time. Computer memory was very expensive, and if you could store the records for this year, that would be fine. You would never want to store a booking for next year, so why bother to include the year in a date? Even today, look at your airline tickets; try to find a year. So there are advantages in replacing a technology platform every 50 years or so, whether you think it needs it or not.

This woman is at an airport, and she’s checking people in, and she’s happy she has womanairportgooglea new computer system that she likes and that helps her serve her customers in a much better way. And we’re having fun moving this up to our new planet-wide data centers that we get to play with. It’s good stuff. 

#5 Augmented reality: A new way of looking at the world
Let’s go back 45 years or so, to 1968, at MIT Lincoln Labs. Ivan Sutherland, one of the great pioneers of computer graphics, computer vision, was starting to build systems to see what it would look like if you had access to information but you could still interact with the world. You could look around the world, and the world might have information annotated on it — something that might be called augmented reality — and you would actually have this type of thing available to you. What might that look like? That would be kind of interesting. And the system was built. You might or might not be surprised to know, based on your classics training, that it was called the Sword of Damocles. But this system was built, and people did some early experiments.

GogglesNew glassesThis is the sort of thing that you can imagine might be helpful, but probably wouldn't be terribly useful, for travelers. It doesn’t look particularly portable. But if you fast-forward to this year, the new version that’s come out is slightly more streamlined.   

So now we have graphical information and maps and images that we can look at. We have symbolic information that’s encoded in ways that we can reason over and explain to you. We’ve got systems that can understand your voice; they can even know enough about your situation to give you relevant information for just what you're doing right now. We’ve got new computer systems that are flexible enough that we can represent this information in useful ways. And now we’re starting to see the deployment of platforms that can actually make this part of your daily life.

To me, travel is an obvious application. I mean, just think; to have this technology — to be able to have all the information that you want in front of you when you’re traveling, available to help you in your travels — and to be able to share that experience with your friends, wherever your travels might take you.

Coming up: Hugo Burge, chairman of the board of Momondo, and Carl Sparks, president and CEO of Travelocity Global, grill Jeremy Wertheimer on Google’s impact on the travel industry, and the company’s intentions.


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