Compsci 49S: Google: The Computer Science Within and Its Impact on Society

April 1, 2007
Shivnath Babu

Les Todd

As search engines go, Google sets the standard for visual simplicity. While many of its competitors bombard customers with entertainment news and stock prices, Google’s homepage features little more than a colorful logo and expanses of white space. But sophisticated technology hides beneath the austere design, says assistant professor of computer science Shivnath Babu, who explains that the $140 billion company employs artificial intelligence and closely guarded data-mining algorithms to improve its customers’ searches for “pizza delivery durham” and “anna karenina cliffs notes.”

Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched in 1998, after failing to persuade several companies to buy their search technology. “At that time, all these companies were trying to become portals,” Babu says. “Search was only part of the game.” Babu, who came to Duke in 2005 after earning his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford, knows of what he speaks. As a graduate student, he was a member of the same Database Group—now called the Stanford Infolab—where Page and Brin developed Google’s search algorithms as Frisbee-tossing doctoral candidates in the late 1990s.

Now Babu is leading a freshman seminar designed to teach the history, technology, and ethical issues behind Google to computer-science neophytes. The course is brand-new, and in the spirit of an egalitarian tech start-up, Babu is developing assignments as the course goes along; he has assigned each of his eighteen students to teach class for a day. Their topics range from the emergence of meta-search engines (which compile the results of searches conducted by numerous search engines at once) to the economics of Internet advertisements.

During one February class meeting, a student presents a PowerPoint on the challenge Google poses to museums and other institutions that store massive amounts of intellectual property. Babu explains that today’s sophisticated crawlers can unearth information that the hosts of webpages might not want available in the public domain. (Also, some crawlers consume so much bandwidth while caching a webpage that they can crash a site outright.) Ironically, Babu points out that Page and Brin never published the details of their work in an academic journal, because they feared that a competitor might steal their technology. It seems the godfathers of free-flowing information understood its risks from the get-go.


Shivnath Babu earned a B.Tech in computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 1999, and received his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University in 2005. He was awarded a National Science Foundation Early CAREER Award in January for his work on the Ques project on Querying and Controlling System. Babu’s current research focuses on managing database systems, and is supported by grants from Duke and IBM.


Must be a Duke freshman


John Battelle, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture
Soumen Chakrabarti, Mining The Web: Analysis of Hypertext and Semi Structured Data
Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer, Google’s PageRank and Beyond
David Vise and Mark Malseed, The Google Story
Readings from research publications, the Internet, and the popular press


Leading a class discussion
Class participation