Google chief economist Hal Varian

A truly stupendous crowd gathered at Melbourne Business School on Tuesday night this week. Google’s chief economist, Professor Hal Varian, was in town. I was pretty excited to go along: Varian is a legend, and the issues facing Google could hardly be more pressing and contemporary.

Varian began his address not on privacy, and not on regulation. He started with machine learning. Google can now do some cool stuff with image recognition, he explained. If you visit Google's Cloud Vision, you can upload a photo and an algorithm will tell you, with striking accuracy, what it believes the photo depicts. It was impressive to see that yes, Google can not only recognise Varian’s cat as a cat, but tell you the breed, too. The rest of the speech, whoever, was less compelling.