Google has answers to all of the questions that you may ask. Google also has answers to questions you didn’t know you wanted to ask. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a game popularized in 1994 that has never left popular culture. The game is to connect any actor to Kevin Bacon in as few steps as possible based on screen credits. The number of steps it takes to connect the two is an actor’s Bacon Number. Google has now put the Bacon Number at your fingertips by incorporating the term into its search algorithm. Typing “Bacon Number [actor’s name]” into the Google search field now returns not just the actor’s Bacon Number, but also returns the steps it took to get there with hyperlinks to learn more about each actor in the chain.
The name of the game stems from an idea articulated in 1929 by author Frigyes Karinthy. The theory is that each person is connected to any other person in the world by only six degrees of separation through a network of personal acquaintances. Academic attempts at verifying six as the correct number continue in many different forms today, but even without confirmation, the idea has been influential. For example, in the field of mathematics, a game similar to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon has been played for over forty years. A mathematician’s Erdös Number connects them to Paul Erdös, a prolific collaborator in mathematics, through a network of coauthors on academic publications. Similar connection games are played in other fields connecting researchers to Einstein, or chess players to 19th century American chess player Paul Morphy. Truly rare individuals even have Erdös-Bacon Numbers. Natalie Portman is one, who published an academic paper while at Harvard and acted alongside Kevin Bacon.
This new form of the game at Google’s search page gets its results from Google’s Knowledge Graph database. What can be seen as a new challenge to office productivity is also a new demonstration of the capabilities of the Knowledge Graph. By showcasing the Bacon Number, Google is showcasing the ability of its search engine to make connections that you didn’t know existed. Google hopes to show that they can provide answers to questions you didn’t know you wanted to ask. By revealing connections between your search terms and related information, the company is trying to reduce the time it takes to get answers. The Knowledge Graph carousel is designed to provide a more complete picture of the topic being researched rather than only displaying the narrow results originally asked for in an Internet search. A search enhanced with the Knowledge Graph is now able to help disambiguate, and find the right answer when one search term can refer to several real world objects. The side bar summary on the search page is also generated by the Knowledge Graph, providing real world links and relationships around a specific topic.
The Knowledge Graph is also designed to help make unexpected discoveries that prompt entirely new questions. The existence of an Erdös Number is perhaps one example, or the discovery that Rose Byrne has several science fiction credits to her name. Both of these discoveries came by typing “Bacon Number Natalie Portman” into Google’s search page. Is it possible that Google has turned Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon into a viable academic pursuit?