All the News that’s Fit to Read: A Study of Social Annotations for News Reading

Posted by Chinmay Kulkarni, Stanford University Ph.D candidate and former Google Intern, and Ed H. Chi, Google Research Scientist

News is one of the most important parts of our collective information diet, and like any other activity on the Web, online news reading is fast becoming a social experience. Internet users today see recommendations for news from a variety of sources; newspaper websites allow readers to recommend news articles to each other, restaurant review sites present other diners’ recommendations, and now several social networks have integrated social news readers.

With news article recommendations and endorsements coming from a combination of computers and algorithms, companies that publish and aggregate content, friends and even complete strangers, how do these explanations (i.e. why the articles are shown to you, which we call “annotations”) affect users’ selections of what to read? Given the ubiquity of online social annotations in news dissemination, it is surprising how little is known about how users respond to these annotations, and how to offer them to users productively.

In All the News that’s Fit to Read: A Study of Social Annotations for News Reading, presented at the 2013 ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems and highlighted in the list of influential Google papers from 2013, we reported on results from two experiments with voluntary participants that suggest that social annotations, which have so far been considered as a generic simple method to increase user engagement, are not simple at all; social annotations vary significantly in their degree of persuasiveness, and their ability to change user engagement.

News articles in different annotation conditions

The first experiment looked at how people use annotations when the content they see is not personalized, and the annotations are not from people in their social network, as is the case when a user is not signed into a particular social network. Participants who signed up for the study were suggested the same set of news articles via annotations from strangers, a computer agent, and a fictional branded company. Additionally, they were told whether or not other participants in the experiment would see their name displayed next to articles they read (i.e. “Recorded” or “Not Recorded”).

Surprisingly, annotations by unknown companies and computers were significantly more persuasive than those by strangers in this “signed-out” context. This result implies the potential power of suggestion offered by annotations, even when they’re conferred by brands or recommendation algorithms previously unknown to the users, and that annotations by computers and companies may be valuable in a signed-out context. Furthermore, the experiment showed that with “recording” on, the overall number of articles clicked decreased compared to participants without “recording,” regardless of the type of annotation, suggesting that subjects were cognizant of how they appear to other users in social reading apps.

If annotations by strangers is not as persuasive as those by computers or brands, as the first experiment showed, what about the effects of friend annotations? The second experiment examined the signed-in experience (with Googlers as subjects) and how they reacted to social annotations from friends, investigating whether personalized endorsements help people discover and select what might be more interesting content.

Perhaps not entirely surprising, results showed that friend annotations are persuasive and improve user satisfaction of news article selections. What’s interesting is that, in post-experiment interviews, we found that annotations influenced whether participants read articles primarily in three cases: first, when the annotator was above a threshold of social closeness; second, when the annotator had subject expertise related to the news article; and third, when the annotation provided additional context to the recommended article. This suggests that social context and personalized annotation work together to improve user experience overall.

Some questions for future research include whether or not highlighting expertise in annotations help, if the threshold for social proximity can be algorithmically determined, and if aggregating annotations (e.g. “110 people liked this”) help increases engagement. We look forward to further research that enable social recommenders to offer appropriate explanations for why users should pay attention, and reveal more nuances based on the presentation of annotations.

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Announcing the Google CS Engagement Small Awards Program

Posted by Leslie Yeh Johnson, University Relations

(cross-posted on the Google for Education blog)

College students are more interested than ever in studying computer science. There has been an unprecedented increase in enrollment in Computer Science undergraduate programs over the past six years. Harvard University’s popular introductory CS course CS50 has recently claimed the spot as the most enrolled course on campus. An astounding 50% of Harvey Mudd’s graduates received engineering degrees this year. However, while the overall number of students in introductory computer science courses continue to climb, the number of students who go on to complete undergraduate degrees in this field, particularly among women and under-represented minorities, does not match this increase in individual course enrollment (2013 Taulbee Survey).

Recent findings show that while students may begin a CS degree program, retaining students after their first year remains an issue. Research indicates that one of the strongest factors in the retention of students in undergraduate CS degrees is early exposure to engaging courses and course material, such as high quality assignments that are meaningful and relevant to the student’s life or classroom activities that encourage student-to-student interaction. When an instructor or department imbeds these practices into the introductory CS classroom, students remain excited about CS and are more likely to complete their undergraduate CS degree.

At Google we believe in the importance of preparing the next generation of computer scientists. To this end, we’ve created the CS Engagement Small Grants Program to support educators teaching introductory computer science courses in reaching their engagement and retention goals. We’ll give unrestricted gifts of $5,000 to the selected applicants’ universities, towards the execution of engaging CS1 or CS2 courses in the 2014-2015 school year. We encourage educators who are teaching CS1 and CS2 courses at the post-secondary level to apply to the Google CS Engagement Small Grants Program. Applications will be accepted through November 15, 2014 and will be evaluated on an ongoing basis. If you’re interested in applying, please check out the Call for Proposals.

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Sudoku, Linear Optimization, and the Ten Cent Diet

Posted by Jon Orwant, Engineering Manager

(cross-posted on the Google Apps Developer blog, and the Google Developers blog)

In 1945, future Nobel laureate George Stigler wrote an essay in the Journal of Farm Economics titled The Cost of Subsistence about a seemingly simple problem: how could a soldier be fed for as little money as possible?

The “Stigler Diet” became a classic problem in the then-new field of linear optimization, which is used today in many areas of science and engineering. Any time you have a set of linear constraints such as “at least 50 square meters of solar panels” or “the amount of paint should equal the amount of primer” along with a linear goal (e.g., “minimize cost” or “maximize customers served”), that’s a linear optimization problem.

At Google, our engineers work on plenty of optimization problems. One example is our YouTube video stabilization system, which uses linear optimization to eliminate the shakiness of handheld cameras. A more lighthearted example is in the Google Docs Sudoku add-on, which instantaneously generates and solves Sudoku puzzles inside a Google Sheet, using the SCIP mixed integer programming solver to compute the solution.

Today we’re proud to announce two new ways for everyone to solve linear optimization problems. First, you can now solve linear optimization problems in Google Sheets with the Linear Optimization add-on written by Google Software Engineer Mihai Amarandei-Stavila. The add-on uses Google Apps Script to send optimization problems to Google servers. The solutions are displayed inside the spreadsheet. For developers who want to create their own applications on top of Google Apps, we also provide an API to let you call our linear solver directly.

Second, we’re open-sourcing the linear solver underlying the add-on: Glop (the Google Linear Optimization Package), created by Bruno de Backer with other members of the Google Optimization team. It’s available as part of the or-tools suite and we provide a few examples to get you started. On that page, you’ll find the Glop solution to the Stigler diet problem. (A Google Sheets file that uses Glop and the Linear Optimization add-on to solve the Stigler diet problem is available here. You’ll need to install the add-on first.)

Stigler posed his problem as follows: given nine nutrients (calories, protein, Vitamin C, and so on) and 77 candidate foods, find the foods that could sustain soldiers at minimum cost.

The Simplex algorithm for linear optimization was two years away from being invented, so Stigler had to do his best, arriving at a diet that cost $39.93 per year (in 1939 dollars), or just over ten cents per day. Even that wasn’t the cheapest diet. In 1947, Jack Laderman used Simplex, nine calculator-wielding clerks, and 120 person-days to arrive at the optimal solution.

Glop’s Simplex implementation solves the problem in 300 milliseconds. Unfortunately, Stigler didn’t include taste as a constraint, and so the poor hypothetical soldiers will eat nothing but the following, ever:

  • Enriched wheat flour
  • Liver
  • Cabbage
  • Spinach
  • Navy beans

Is it possible to create an appealing dish out of these five ingredients? Google Chef Anthony Marco took it as a challenge, and we’re calling the result Foie Linéaire à la Stigler:

This optimal meal consists of seared calf liver dredged in flour, atop a navy bean purée with marinated cabbage and a spinach pesto.

Chef Marco reported that the most difficult constraint was making the dish tasty without butter or cream. That said, I had the opportunity to taste our linear optimization solution, and it was delicious.

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Introducing Structured Snippets, now a part of Google Web Search

Posted by Corinna Cortes, Boulos Harb, Afshin Rostamizadeh, Ken Wilder, and Cong Yu, Google Research

Google Web Search has evolved in recent years with a host of features powered by the Knowledge Graph and other data sources to provide users with highly structured and relevant data. Structured Snippets is a new feature that incorporates facts into individual result snippets in Web Search. As seen in the example below, interesting and relevant information is extracted from a page and displayed as part of the snippet for the query “nikon d7100”:

The WebTables research team has been working to extract and understand tabular data on the Web with the intent to surface particularly relevant data to users. Our data is already used in the Research Tool found in Google Docs and Slides; Structured Snippets is the latest collaboration between Google Research and the Web Search team employing that data to seamlessly provide the most relevant information to the user. We use machine learning techniques to distinguish data tables on the Web from uninteresting tables, e.g., tables used for formatting web pages. We also have additional algorithms to determine quality and relevance that we use to display up to four highly ranked facts from those data tables. Another example of a structured snippet for the query “superman”, this time as it appears on a mobile phone, is shown below:

Fact quality will vary across results based on page content, and we are continually enhancing the relevance and accuracy of the facts we identify and display. We hope users will find this extra snippet information useful.

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Sign in to with Google (and Facebook, and…)

Posted by John Cox, Software Engineer

Google is passionate about online education. In addition to our own Course Builder project, we’re also partners with edX, a not-for-profit that shares our desire for scalable, quality education for everyone. Their software, Open edX, lets people make educational content and deliver it online to anybody, anytime, anywhere. It powers their own site,, and is also used by companies and universities worldwide.

Today we’re very pleased to announce that you can now sign in to with your Google or Facebook account:

Until recently, users who wanted to take advantage of the high quality content on needed to create a new account first. This is a painful, error prone process―really, who wants to worry about yet another password? So we added the ability to use over 60 external authentication providers to Open edX, with support for everything from open standards like OpenID or OAuth 2.0, to custom university single sign-on systems. For their site, edX decided to let users pick between Google, Facebook, and a custom username and password.

If you run Open edX, you can also use this feature now. The authentication module is extensible so you can add any third-party provider you want if your favorite is not yet supported. And the feature is completely configurable, so you can pick whatever third-party authentication systems are best for your users, including none at all. It’s totally up to you.

By simultaneously increasing user choice, convenience, and security, we hope to make open online education even easier and safer to use, whether people pick Course Builder or Open edX for authoring and delivering courses. We’re very grateful to our partners at edX for working with us in this exciting field.

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Course Builder now supports the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) Specification

Posted by John Cox, Software Engineer

Since the release of Course Builder two years ago, it has been used by individuals, companies, and universities worldwide to create and deliver online courses on a variety of subjects, helping to show the potential for making education more accessible through open source technology.

Today, we’re excited to announce that Course Builder now supports the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification. Course Builder can now interoperate with other LTI-compliant systems and online learning platforms, allowing users to interact with high-quality educational content no matter where it lives. This is an important step toward our goal of making educational content available to everyone.

If you have LTI-compliant software and would like to serve its content inside Course Builder, you can do so by using Course Builder as an LTI consumer. If you want to serve Course Builder content inside another LTI-compliant system, you can use Course Builder as an LTI provider. You can use either of these features, both, or none—the choice is entirely up to you.

The Course Builder LTI extension module, now available on Github, supports LTI version 1.0, and its LTI provider is certified by IMS Global, the nonprofit member organization that created the LTI specification. Like Course Builder itself, this module is open source and available under the Apache 2.0 license.

As part of our continued commitment to online education, we are also happy to announce we have become an affiliate member of IMS Global. IMS Global shares our desire to provide education online at scale, and we look forward to working with the IMS community on LTI and other online education technologies.

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Building a deeper understanding of images

Posted by Christian Szegedy, Software Engineer

The ImageNet large-scale visual recognition challenge (ILSVRC) is the largest academic challenge in computer vision, held annually to test state-of-the-art technology in image understanding, both in the sense of recognizing objects in images and locating where they are. Participants in the competition include leading academic institutions and industry labs. In 2012 it was won by DNNResearch using the convolutional neural network approach described in the now-seminal paper by Krizhevsky et al.[4]

In this year’s challenge, team GoogLeNet (named in homage to LeNet, Yann LeCun‘s influential convolutional network) placed first in the classification and detection (with extra training data) tasks, doubling the quality on both tasks over last year’s results. The team participated with an open submission, meaning that the exact details of its approach are shared with the wider computer vision community to foster collaboration and accelerate progress in the field.

The competition has three tracks: classification, classification with localization, and detection. The classification track measures an algorithm’s ability to assign correct labels to an image. The classification with localization track is designed to assess how well an algorithm models both the labels of an image and the location of the underlying objects. Finally, the detection challenge is similar, but uses much stricter evaluation criteria. As an additional difficulty, this challenge includes a lot of images with tiny objects which are hard to recognize. Superior performance in the detection challenge requires pushing beyond annotating an image with a “bag of labels” — a model must be able to describe a complex scene by accurately locating and identifying many objects in it. As examples, the images in this post are actual top-scoring inferences of the GoogleNet detection model on the validation set of the detection challenge.

This work was a concerted effort by Wei Liu, Yangqing Jia, Pierre Sermanet, Scott Reed, Drago Anguelov, Dumitru Erhan, Andrew Rabinovich and myself. Two of the team members — Wei Liu and Scott Reed — are PhD students who are a part of the intern program here at Google, and actively participated in the work leading to the submissions. Without their dedication the team could not have won the detection challenge.

This effort was accomplished by using the DistBelief infrastructure, which makes it possible to train neural networks in a distributed manner and rapidly iterate. At the core of the approach is a radically redesigned convolutional network architecture. Its seemingly complex structure (typical incarnations of which consist of over 100 layers with a maximum depth of over 20 parameter layers), is based on two insights: the Hebbian principle and scale invariance. As the consequence of a careful balancing act, the depth and width of the network are both increased significantly at the cost of a modest growth in evaluation time. The resultant architecture leads to over 10x reduction in the number of parameters compared to most state of the art vision networks. This reduces overfitting during training and allows our system to perform inference with low memory footprint.

For the detection challenge, the improved neural network model is used in the sophisticated R-CNN detector by Ross Girshick et al.[2], with additional proposals coming from the multibox method[1]. For the classification challenge entry, several ideas from the work of Andrew Howard[3] were incorporated and extended, specifically as they relate to image sampling during training and evaluation. The systems were evaluated both stand-alone and as ensembles (averaging the outputs of up to seven models) and their results were submitted as separate entries for transparency and comparison.

These technological advances will enable even better image understanding on our side and the progress is directly transferable to Google products such as photo search, image search, YouTube, self-driving cars, and any place where it is useful to understand what is in an image as well as where things are.


[1] Erhan D., Szegedy C., Toshev, A., and Anguelov, D., “Scalable Object Detection using Deep Neural Networks”, The IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), 2014, pp. 2147-2154.

[2] Girshick, R., Donahue, J., Darrell, T., & Malik, J., “Rich feature hierarchies for accurate object detection and semantic segmentation”, arXiv preprint arXiv:1311.2524, 2013.

[3] Howard, A. G., “Some Improvements on Deep Convolutional Neural Network Based Image Classification”, arXiv preprint arXiv:1312.5402, 2013.

[4] Krizhevsky, A., Sutskever I., and Hinton, G., “Imagenet classification with deep convolutional neural networks”Advances in neural information processing systems, 2012.

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Working Together to Support Computer Science Education

Posted by Chris Stephenson, Computer Science Education Program Manager

(Cross-posted from the Google for Education blog)

Computer Science (CS) education in K-12 is receiving an increasing amount of attention from media and policy makers. Education groups have been working for years to build the infrastructure needed to support CS both inside and outside the school environment, including standards development and dissemination, models for teacher professional development, research, resources for educators, and the building of peer-driven and peer-supported communities of learning.

At Google, we strive to increase opportunities in CS and be a strong contributor to the community of those seeking to improve CS education through our engagement in research, curriculum resource development and dissemination, professional development of teachers, tools development, and large-scale efforts to engage young women and underrepresented groups in computer science. However, despite these efforts, there are still many challenges to overcome to improve the state of CS education.

For example, many people confuse computer science with education technology (the use of computing to support learning in other disciplines) and computer literacy (a very basic understanding of a limited number of computer applications). This confusion leads to the assumption that computer science education is taking place, when in fact in many schools it is not.

Women and minorities are still underrepresented in computer science education and in the high tech workplace. In her introduction to Jane Margolis’ Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, distinguished scientist Shirley Malcolm refers to computer science as “privileged knowledge” to which minority students often have no access. This statement is supported by data from the College Board and the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

Poverty also has a significant but often ignored impact on access to technology and quality computer science education. At present there are more than 16 million U.S. children living in poverty; these children are the least likely to have access to computer science knowledge and tools in their schools and homes.

There are many organizations and programs which focus on CS education, working hard to address these issues, and others. This gives Google the unique opportunity to analyze gaps in existing efforts and apply our resources towards programs that are most needed. In so doing, we hope to help uncover new strategies and create sustainable improvements to CS education.

Achieving systemic and sustained change in K-12 CS education is a complex undertaking that requires strategic support that complements both existing formal school programs and extracurricular education. Google is proud to be a member of the community committed to making tangible improvements to the state of CS education. In future blog posts, we will introduce you so some of the programs and resources that Google has been working on.

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Hardware Initiative at Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab

Posted by Hartmut Neven, Director of Engineering

The Quantum Artificial Intelligence team at Google is launching a hardware initiative to design and build new quantum information processors based on superconducting electronics. We are pleased to announce that John Martinis and his team at UC Santa Barbara will join Google in this initiative. John and his group have made great strides in building superconducting quantum electronic components of very high fidelity. He recently was awarded the London Prize recognizing him for his pioneering advances in quantum control and quantum information processing. With an integrated hardware group the Quantum AI team will now be able to implement and test new designs for quantum optimization and inference processors based on recent theoretical insights as well as our learnings from the D-Wave quantum annealing architecture. We will continue to collaborate with D-Wave scientists and to experiment with the “Vesuvius” machine at NASA Ames which will be upgraded to a 1000 qubit “Washington” processor.

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