Recently I was helping one of my children research a topic for a school paper. She was doing well, but the results she was getting were overly broad. So, I taught her some “Google-Fu,” explaining how you can structure queries in ways that yield better results. She replied that search engines should be smarter than that. I explained that sometimes the problem is that search engines look at your past searches and customize results as an attempt to appear smarter or to motivate someone to do or believe something.
Unfortunately, those results can be skewed and potentially lead someone in the wrong direction. It was a good reminder that getting the best results from search engines often requires a bit of skill and query planning, as well as occasional third-party validation.
Then the other day I saw this commercial from Motel 6 (“Gas Station Trouble”) where a man has problems getting good results from his smart phone. That reminded me of seeing someone speak to their phone, getting frustrated by the responses received. His questions went something like this:
“Siri, I want to take my wife to dinner tonight, someplace that is not too far away, and not too late. And she likes to have a view while eating so please look for something with a nice view. Oh, and we don’t want Italian food because we just had that last night.”
Just as amazing as the question being asked was watching him ask it over and over again in the exact same way, each time becoming even more frustrated. I asked myself, “Are smartphones making us dumber?” Instead of contemplating that question I began to think about what future smart interfaces would or could be like.
I grew up watching Sci-Fi computer interfaces like “Computer” on Star Trek (1966), “HAL” on 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968), “KITT” from Knight Rider (1982), and “Samantha” from Her (2013). These interfaces had a few things in common:
- They responded to verbal commands;
- They were interactive – not just providing answers, but also asking qualifying questions and allowing for interrupts to drill-down or enhance the search (e.g., with pictures or questions that resembled verbal Venn diagrams);
- They often provided suggestions for alternate queries based on intuition. That would have been helpful for the gentleman trying to find a restaurant.
Despite having 50 years of science fiction examples, we are still a long way off from realizing that goal of a truly intelligent interface. Like many new technologies, they were originally envisioned by science fiction writers long before they appeared in science.
There seems to be a spectrum of common beliefs about modern interfaces. On one end there are products that make visualization easy, facilitating understanding, refinement and drill-down of data sets. Tableau is a great example of this type of easy to use interface. At the other end of the spectrum the emphasis is on back-end systems – robust computer systems that digest huge volumes of data and return the results to complex queries within seconds. Several other vendors offer powerful analytics platforms. In reality, you really need a strong front-end and back-end if you want to achieve the full potential of either.
But, there is so much more potential…
I predict that within the next 3 – 5 years we will see business and consumer interface examples (powered by Natural Language Processing, or NLP) that are closer to the verbal interfaces from those familiar Sci-Fi shows (albeit with limited capabilities and no flashing lights).
Within the next 10 years I believe we will have computer interfaces that intuit our needs and facilitate the generation of correct answers quickly and easily. While this is unlikely to be at the level of “The world’s first intelligent Operating System” envisioned in the movie “Her,” and probably won’t even be able to read lips like “HAL,” it should be much more like HAL and KITT than like Siri (from Apple) or Cortana (from Microsoft).
Siri was groundbreaking consumer technology when it was introduced. Cortana seems to have taken a small leap ahead. While I have not mentioned Google Now, it is somewhat of a latecomer to this consumer smart interface party, and in my opinion is behind both Siri and Cortana.
So, what will this future smart interface do? It will need to be very powerful, harnessing a natural language interface on the front-end with an extremely flexible and robust analytics interface on the back-end. The language interface will need to take a standard question (in multiple languages and dialects) – just as if you were asking a person, deconstruct it using Natural Language Processing, and develop the proper query based on the available data. That is important but only gets you so far.
Data will come from many sources – things that we consider today with relational, object, graph, and NoSQL databases. There will be structured and unstructured data that must be joined and filtered quickly and accurately. In addition, context will be more important than ever. Pictures and videos could be scanned for facial recognition, location (via geotagging), and in the case of videos analyze speech. Relationships will be identified and inferred based on a variety of sources, using both data and metadata. Sensors will collect data from almost everything we do and (someday) wear, which will provide both content and context.
The use of Stylometry will identify outside content likely related to the people involved in the query and provide further context about interests, activities, and even biases. This is how future interfaces will truly understand (not just interpret), intuit (so it can determine what you really want to know), and then present results that may be far more accurate than we are used to today. Because the interface is interactive in nature it will provide the ability to organize and analyze subsets of data quickly and easily.
So, where do I think that this technology will originate? I believe that it will be adapted from video game technology. Video games have consistently pushed the envelope over the years, helping drive the need for higher bandwidth I/O capabilities in devices and networks, better and faster graphics capabilities, and larger and faster storage (which ultimately led to flash memory and even Hadoop). Animation has become very lifelike and games are becoming more responsive to audio commands. It is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that this is where the next generation of smart interfaces will be found (instead of from the evolution of current smart interfaces).
Someday it may no longer be possible to “tweak” results through the use or omission of keywords, quotation marks, and flags. Additionally, it may no longer be necessary to understand special query languages (SQL, NoSQL, SPARQL, etc.) and syntax. We won’t have to worry as much about incorrect joins, spurious correlations and biased result sets. Instead, we will be given the answers we need – even if we don’t realize that this was what we needed in the first place. At that point computer systems may appear nearly omniscient.
When this happens parents will no longer need to teach their children “Google-Fu.” Those are going be interesting times indeed.
Science has been interesting to me for most of my lifetime, but it wasn’t until my first child was born that I shifted from “interested” to “involved.” My eldest daughter was diagnosed with Systemic Onset Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (SoJIA – originally called Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, or JRA) when she was 15 months old, which also happened to be about six months into the start of my old Consulting company and in the middle of a very critical Y2K ERP system upgrade and rehosting project. It was definitely a challenging time in my life.
At that time there was very little research on JRA because it was estimated there were only 30,000 children affected by the disease and the implication was that funding research would not have a positive ROI. As an aside, this was also a few years before the breakthroughs of biological medicines like Enbrel for use on children.
One of the things that I learned was that this disease could be horribly debilitating. Children often had physical deformities as a result of this disease. Even worse, the systemic type that my daughter has could result in premature death. As a first-time parent it was extremely difficult to imagine that type of life for your child.
Luckily, the company that I had just started was taking off so I decided to finds ways to personally make a tangible difference for all children with this disease. We decided to take 50% of our net profits and use them to fund medical research. We had a goal of funding $1 million in research and finding a cure for Juvenile Arthritis within the next 5-7 years.
As someone new to “major gifts” and philanthropy I quickly learned that some forms of gifts were more beneficial than others. While most organizations wanted you to start a fund (which we did), the impact from that tended to be more long-term and less immediate. I met someone who was passionate, knowledgeable, and successful in her field who showed me a different and better approach (here’s a post that describes that in more detail).
I no longer wanted to blindly give money and hope that it was used quickly and properly. Rather, I wanted to treat these donations like investments in a near-term cure. In order to be successful, I needed to understand research from both medical and scientific perspectives in these areas. That began a new journey of research and independent learning in completely new areas.
There was a lot going on in the fields of Genetics and Genomics at the time (here’s a good explanation of the difference between the two). My interest and efforts in this area led to a position on the Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee with the Arthritis Foundation. With the exception of me, the other members were talented and successful physicians who were also involved with medical research. We met quarterly, and I did ask questions and make suggestions that made a difference. But, unlike everyone else on the committee, I needed to study and prepare for 40+ hours for each call to ensure that had enough of an understanding to add value and not be a distraction.
A few years later we did work for a Nanotechnology company (more info here for those interested). The Chief Scientist wasn’t that interested in explaining what they did until I described some of our research projects on gene expression. He then went into great detail about what they were doing and how he believed it would change what we do in the future. I saw that and agreed, but also started thinking of the potential for leveraging nanotechnology with medicine.
I was listening to the “TED Radio Hour” while driving today and heard a segment about entrepreneur Richard Resnick. It was exciting because it got me thinking about this again, and this is a topic that I haven’t thought about much for the past few years (the last time was contemplating how new analytics products could be useful in this space).
There are efforts going on today with custom, personalized medicines that target only specific genes for a very specific outcome. The genetic modifications being performed on plants today will likely be performed on humans in the near future (I would guess within 10-15 years). The body is an incredibly adaptive organism, so it will be very challenging to implement anything that is consistently safe and effective long-term. But, that day will come.
It’s not a huge leap to go from genetically modified “treatment cells” to true nanotechnology (and not just extremely small particles). Just think, machines that can be designed to work independently within us, do what they are programmed to do, and more importantly identify and understand adaptations (i.e., artificial intelligence) as they occur and alter their approach and treatment plan accordingly. To me, this is extremely exciting. It’s not that I want to live to be 100+ years old – because I don’t. But, being able to do things that have a positive impact on the quality of life for children and their families is a worthy goal from my perspective.
My advice is to always continue learning, keep an open mind, and see what you can personally do to make a difference. You will never know unless you try.
Note: Updated to fix and remove dead links.