londrum - don't misunderstand me. I am not at all convinced that Google is the one who is going to get this right. I am 100% convinced that
1. Their survival as a search engine depends on getting this right
2. They know that
3. This is fundamental to their long-term strategy
4. They are willing to pour serious resources into making sure they stay out ahead in this type of computing.
That said, their capabilities are clearly rudimentary and it's unclear how much of an advance this is. I should temper all of my comments with a "if they are doing it the way they say they are doing it" caveat.
Even if it turns out this is just a focussed algo that only calculates a Bacon Number (which, frankly, I don't believe for a second because there's no ROI for that for Google, so I can't see why they would bother), this still tells us something fairly big.
Think back to our perceptions of Google from, say, 5-7 years ago. We tended to think of Google as a company who was always going to seek an automated solution that scaled with computing technology and did not depend on scaling with human minds working on problems. Their model was to have a few brilliant minds develop automated tools and leverage that.
Look at where we are now. The Bacon Number Calculator almost certainly depends on data that has been scrubbed by humans and is a small subset of what's in the Knowledge Graph (whatever the hell that is). Google is pouring huge amounts of labor into their maps, both the data, the technology and the human labor to massage that data and cross-check it with the real world (if you missed the article in The Atlantic from last week, it is a must-read: [theatlantic.com...] ). They are buying structured data as Brotherhood of the Lan pointed out. So I'm seeing this in the context of a wider effort and see the Bacon Number Calculator as the tiny peek we're getting. It's possible that you're right and there's no wizard behind the curtain, but other signs and efforts from Google make me believe provisionally that there is some powerful stuff behind the curtain and for all sorts of reasons (SEO, privacy rights, data monopolies, "data infrastructure fail points" - a term I just came up with) this all bears serious watching.
To me, all of this adds up to Google placing big bets on being able to see relationships not just between web pages, but out in the real world as well. It is a move from a few guys and a lot of computers, to a company that is a lot of computers and a lot of people hand-feeding data into those computers.
Why all the hub bub because it's Google? Well, because there are only maybe three companies in the world that have the technology and the cash on hand to mount an effort like this (Google, Apple, MS). MS either isn't much of a player, or it's keeping quiet. Apple is a player (think Siri). They have the cash and they have the access to lots of user data that Google doesn't have. What they don't have is the search technology.
That leaves Google in the lead. Take away their phones (think patent infringement lawsuits) and all that user data and suddenly things look good for Apple. Let Google have its phones and I don't see anyone else winning this race. Someone could appear tomorrow with a technology that just crushes this problem, but in my opinion, Google will break the bank to buy that technology because if Apple gets it, Google is dead. On the other hand, if Google gets it, I think Apple is still viable (assuming the loss of Steve Jobs isn't fatal in any case).
Even if someone comes up with the killer algo, by putting all this energy into data that simply can't be obtained just by crawling the web, Google actually puts itself in a position where it can fall behind a bit on algorithmic technology and still have the data juggernaut to make up for that. It's scary how much data Google has and how rapidly they're increasing the size of that data set, but it's also impressive.
I know that's long but I could sum it up briefly by saying
1. Yes, Google's PR is all over this because it is vitally important that they be perceived as the leader here.
2. The resources are pouring in because it is, in fact, vitally important that they stay or become the leader in this because their long-term survival depends on gettting this right for way more complex cases than Bacon Numbers.
3. No matter how it shakes out, the Knowledge Graph effort shows that Google is willing to pour actual human labor into something at very high levels. To me, that is a valuable insight into shifts in the Google ethos.
Like them or not, they are still the biggest player in the room and when Google sneezes, we all catch colds.