If the holy grail of Internet search is something like the fictional computer on TV's "Star Trek," capable of answering any spoken question about any subject in the universe, Amit Singhal wants Google (GOOG) to be the company that gets there first.
While acknowledging that goal is still far away, Singhal, the company's senior vice president for engineering, showed off some enhancements to Google's search technology Wednesday that he characterized as significant "baby steps" in the right direction.
Among the most notable: Google is moving to escalate its rivalry with Apple (AAPL) by offering the latest version of Google's voice-enabled search program as an app for iPhones and iPads -- where it will compete head-to-head with Apple's voice-enabled personal assistant, Siri.
Google also said it's inviting 1 million users to test a new feature of its desktop search engine that can pull information from users' email files and the Internet at the same time, which the company says will provide faster and more useful answers to search queries.
A search for information about hiking trails or restaurants, for example, will
turn up standard Internet listings as well as saved emails containing recommendations from friends. Gmail users can search their emails now, but the process requires a separate search from an Internet query.
The new feature also lets a user type "my flights" in the search box and get a real-time status report on a flight for which the user has a reservation, based on information drawn from the confirmation email sent by an airline.
"We want to make the search box universal," Singhal told reporters during a session at the company's San Francisco offices, adding that Google wants to deliver results that combine all the knowledge stored on the World Wide Web with "information that is your information."
Google plans a massive "field test" of its Gmail search feature, which a spokesman said the company has done with other new products. Information about enrolling can be found at g.co/searchtrial.
Also Wednesday, Google said it will offer an earlier search enhancement, previously available in the United States, to other English-speaking countries. The feature, dubbed "Knowledge Graph," recognizes key words in a search inquiry and delivers a compilation of useful information -- such as player rosters and recent scores for a sports team -- next to the standard list of relevant Web links.
As a boy in India, Singhal said, he watched "endless reruns" of "Star Trek" on his family's black-and-white TV. Building a computer like the one on the Starship Enterprise poses difficult problems involving language, speech recognition and artificial intelligence, added Singhal, who described the company's work as a continual effort toward that goal.
Other tech companies are working on similar challenges. Analysts say Apple's Siri could threaten Google's dominance of Internet search, which provides the advertising revenue that contributes most of Google's $38 billion annual income.
Apple and Google are increasingly competing over other mobile services, including online maps and video. In a recent email, IDC tech analyst Hadley Reynolds said that's part of a broader war for the attention of mobile device users, whose numbers are growing faster than desktop PC users.
Google showed off its new voice-enabled search program earlier this summer, but it was initially available only on devices running the latest version of Google's Android operating system. When asked if Apple had approved Google's Voice Search for inclusion in Apple's App Store, Singhal said Google submitted the app a week ago and "we are working with Apple to bring it to users in the next few days."
Google said Wednesday that its Internet search efforts have grown as the World Wide Web has expanded: The company's search engine has identified more than 30 trillion unique web pages, up from 1 trillion in 2008. Google's engine scans over 20 billion pages each day. Google answers more than 100 billion search queries a month. Source: Google.
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