There was a lot of buzz a couple of days ago when Google released +1, a simple button that supposedly lets people recommend links to their friends. Some have speculated that +1 is Google’s answer to the Facebook “Like” button, and a bid at reestablishing dominance over the social currency of the web.
It turns out that +1 actually has very little to do with the so-called “social graph.” Instead, what sources close to the Googleplex are telling us is that +1 is in fact an implementation—the most ambitious yet—of Google’s MapReduce algorithm, their open source software that enables the processing of massive, complicated data sets by splitting the work among thousands of computational nodes.
The specifics are unclear, but it appears that Google is using the +1 buttons, now attached to nearly all of their search results and AdSense ads, to calculate a giant sum. Terence Tao, a mathematician at UCLA who was recently awarded the Fields Medal, “the Nobel prize of math,” has suggested on his blog that it might be the largest such sum ever calculated. “We might be talking on the order of fifty, fifty-one digits here,” he said.
It makes sense given how much distributed hardware Google is throwing at the problem. What they’ve done, in essence—and this is quite brilliant—is to transform every web browser that hits their search results pages into a highly sophisticated parallelized tabulator. Every click on a +1 button is then fed back (“reduced”) to Google and processed by their seemingly endless farm of high-powered servers into an ever-growing integer sum.
It’s not clear when this global experiment is set to end. Many Google users, fearing that they might miss history in the making, have spent hours a day conducting meaningless searches just to find more +1 buttons to click. A commenter on the original announcement expressed his enthusiasm this way: “I’m not just going to sit here while watching it grow. I’m gonna do something about it. Imagine being able to tell your kids that N [Google’s controversial name for the integer] would have been N – 157 if it weren’t for your dad. Now that’s something.”
It sure is.