Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Blog Post #1

Part one

I think the most important thing I got from the Web Squared article was the idea that converging information shadows can create a consolidated image of a concept. If you collect enough anonymized information you can not only de-anonymize that information, resolving it to the entity the information is about, but you can form an understanding of the the entity or idea from contextual cues.

Data mining and metadata mining can produce a more comprehensive picture of an individual's life than the individual could voluntarily provide, can tell you more about a location than a hundred tourists who visited on vacation, can explain more about a concept than anything short of an expert on the subject. The metadata becomes semantic information, explaining the character of the entity - when Netflix creates a category for you, it's really more thoroughly defining your tastes than you would probably be able to articulate. You like surrealist goofy 80s coming-of-age comedies? Netflix knows this, based on your ratings, even if you don't.

I'm interested in the production of intelligent agents - expert systems tuned to the individual which know what you like and aggregate information for you, pointing out the things you'd like. Eventually a system like this could be tied to an augmented reality technology, whether realtime (via some sort of monocle device) or offline (giving you a summary of the stuff you saw or missed during the day that is of greatest interest to you). This is something I'd like to eventually be involved in creating for a living.

Part two

The most exciting web-enabled application I've seen this year has got to be the Wolfram Alpha Android app. Here we have an application that can solve complicated problems from spoken input.

The last three questions I asked it - out loud no less, requiring no keyboard output - were "What is the average distance from Earth to the Andromeda galaxy?", "What is four miles of water column in atmospheres?" and "what is twenty thousand leagues in cubits?"

All of these would be difficult questions to answer in hand-math, essentially impossible questions for most people to solve as head-math and hard to find the answers to using conventional search technologies. And yet using spoken word data (through a web-informed speech recognition engine) it discovers what I have said, then with a mathetmatically-weighted semantic search engine, combs through its vast collection of numerical data and comprehensive knowledge of unit conversions to provide me with a meaningful answer... most of the time.


  1. I think bring up a lot of good points. The example you used of data mining and how 100 tourists can't give you more info about a specific place reminds me of that android app you can use to take a picture of a place, like a monument for instance, and it gives you all the history, and information about it...super intense.

  2. To comment on a comment, I also found the idea of data mining very interesting. Currently, and even more so in the future we are going to have so much information about so many places around the world that it will feel as if we have physically traveled there our selfs. Some times I question if all of this available data is taking away from real life experiences that were more available before all of this data was available.

  3. I think that certainly the ready availability of that sort of media takes away some of the romance and wonder of travel that came from the mystery and novelty of "foreign parts."

    That said, I think that has been happening since travel became an industry. One argument could be made in favor of this new familiarity with parts unknown is that a connected person is never truly away from home: they know how to find their way around, what to look out for when visiting so they don't miss something of interest and they may have more appreciation for what they are seeing because of the context their foreknowledge gives them.

    I did a somewhat "connected" tour of the Southwest in 2001 and found a ton of really great out-of-the-way campgrounds and parks that just don't make it into the road atlases using my laptop and GPS.

    Like with most technologies that change the world, you gain some things and some things are lost, but most importantly, you get out of it what you put in... Only now you get out of it what everyone else puts in too.

  4. It is a little scary how much information we unwittingly provide just by watching something online or even typing in a search inquiry. Google keeps track of every search inquiry typed into their search engine. It helps them narrow down searches but it is eerie to think that at any time they could easily keep track of what you've been looking at on the internet.

  5. The idea of data mining is very interesting, especially when it helps users locate small things that may not make it in tour guides, like the campgrounds you talk about.

    I'd heard about the Wolfram Alpha website where you enter your questions and it gives amazing answers, I didn't realize there was an app available that had speech recognition; it seems a bit surreal which makes it even more appealing to me; I love to see progress that makes things easier for users like me.

  6. The idea of losing anonymity is best shown through the site http://pleaserobme.com. The site was able to take twitter postings and identify people who were away from their home. Entirely non-trivial, due to people over-sharing information, but the threat was certainly real. We have to realize that while the internet may be a playground of wonderful, awesome tech, we lose a lot of ourselves if we aren't careful. (Note, this is neither good nor bad, just something different)

  7. Great post. I'm a huge fan of the notion that, "you get out of it what you put in... Only now you get out of it what everyone else puts in too." This in some ways is remarkable, and in other ways is terrifying. In other news, I'm fascinated (and again, a bit terrified) to see what happens w/ all of our data mined info in the next 5+ years

  8. While wolfram alpha is a beautiful, beautiful thing Tom, I'm a bit skeptical about these new technologies. It's interesting to be able to almost effortlessly have these resources answer our difficult questions. Take a second though to consider what is actually happening. While you mention that a lot of people would have a very difficult time solving those problems but now can know without effort, the problem still has to be solved. Wolfram either does the calculations for us or it searches for people who have done the calculations. When we have these resources doing our homework for us, don't you feel like it's a bit lazy? This is probably just a bunch of technophobia that harks back to the fear of microwave ovens, but I think it's a legitimate concern to the human drive to solve things.

  9. The question arises - is it necessary for humans to solve these kinds of problems? We don't crack coconuts with our bare hands after the invention of the hammer - and with good reason, there's no point.

    If a lot of these problems are solved by computers, that ought to mean that as long as education continues to encourage people to succeed (which the last couple decades seems to indicate that it no longer does) then this sort of tool simply encourages people to turn their thought to other things.

    Suppose you had a great new idea for a submersible, but you're not an engineer. You could ask a machine for the structural strength of your design - which you chose because it's cheap enough to produce to let anybody have their own leisure submarine, and it could immediately tell you whether it was a stupid idea or not.

    Maybe not as adventurous as going out, getting funding, spending years in a lab specializing the design until it's as strong as it can be, then discovering it's going nowhere, but for the garage inventor, toys like Wolfram Alpha let people get onto doing what people are actually good at (and computers aren't) - thinking up new things.