What's After the Real Time Web?

In typical Web-industry style we’re all focused minutely on the leading trend-of-the-year, the real-time Web. But in this obsession we have become a bit myopic. The real-time Web, or what some of us call “The Stream,” is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end. So what will it enable, where is it headed, and what’s it going to look like when we look back at this trend in 10 or 20 years?

In the next 10 years, The Stream is going to go through two big phases, focused on two problems, as it evolves:

  1. Web Attention Deficit Disorder. The first problem with the real-time Web that is becoming increasingly evident is that it has a bad case of ADD. There is so much information streaming in from so many places at once that it’s simply impossible to focus on anything for very long, and a lot of important things are missed in the chaos. The first generation of tools for the Stream are going to need to address this problem.
  2. Web Intention Deficit Disorder. The second problem with the real-time Web will emerge after we have made some real headway in solving Web attention deficit disorder. This second problem is about how to get large numbers of people to focus their intention not just their attention. It’s not just difficult to get people to notice something, it’s even more difficult to get them to do something. Attending to something is simply noticing it. Intending to do something is actually taking action, expending some energy or effort to do something. Intending is a lot more expensive, cognitively speaking, than merely attending. The power of collective intention is literally what changes the world, but we don’t have the tools to direct it yet.

The Stream is not the only big trend taking place right now. In fact, it’s just a strand that is being braided together with several other trends, as part of a larger pattern. Here are some of the other strands I’m tracking:

  • Messaging. The real-time Web aka The Stream is really about messaging in essence. It’s a subset of the global trend towards building a better messaging layer for the Web. Multiple forms of messaging are emerging, from the publish-and-subscribe nature of Twitter and RSS, to things like Google Wave, Pubsubhubub, and broadcast style messaging or multicasting via screencast, conferencing and media streaming and events in virtual worlds. The effect of these tools is that the speed and interactivity of the Web are increasing — the Web is getting faster. Information spreads more virally, more rapidly — in other words, “memes” (which we can think of as collective thoughts) are getting more sophisticated and gaining more mobility.
  • Semantics. The Web becomes more like a database. The resolution of search, ad targeting, and publishing increases. In other words, it’s a higher-resolution Web. Search will be able to target not just keywords but specific meaning. For example, you will be able to search precisely for products or content that meet certain constraints. Multiple approaches from natural language search to the metadata of the Semantic Web will contribute to increased semantic understanding and representation of the Web.
  • Attenuation. As information moves faster, and our networks get broader, information overload gets worse in multiple dimensions. This creates a need for tools to help people filter the firehose. Filtering in its essence is a process of attenuation — a way to focus attention more efficiently on signal versus noise. Broadly speaking there are many forms of filtering from automated filtering, to social filtering, to personalization, but they all come down to helping someone focus their finite attention more efficiently on the things they care about most.
  • The WebOS.  As cloud computing resources, mashups, open linked data, and open API’s proliferate, a new level of aggregator is emerging. These aggregators may focus on one of these areas or may cut across them. Ultimately they are the beginning of true cross-service WebOS’s. I predict this is going to be a big trend in the future — for example instead of writing Web apps directly to various data and API’s in dozens of places, just write to a single WebOS aggregator that acts as middleware between your app and all these choices. It’s much less complicated for developers. The winning WebOS is probably not going to come from Google, Microsoft or Amazon — rather it will probably come from someone neutral, with the best interests of developers as the primary goal.
  • Decentralization. As the semantics of the Web get richer, and the WebOS really emerges it will finally be possible for applications to leverage federated, Web-scale computing. This is when intelligent agents will actually emerge and be practical. By this time the Web will be far too vast and complex and rapidly changing for any centralized system to index and search it. Only massively federated swarms of intelligent agents, or extremely dynamic distributed computing tools, that can spread around the Web as they work, will be able to keep up with the Web.
  • Socialization. Our interactions and activities on the Web are increasingly socially networked, whether individual, group or involving large networks or crowds. Content is both shared and discovered socially through our circles of friends and contacts. In addition, new technologies like Google Social Search enable search results to be filtered by social distance or social relevancy. In other words, things that people you follow like get higher visibility in your search results. Socialization is a trend towards making previously non-social activities more social, and towards making already-social activities more efficient and broader. Ultimately this process leads to wider collaboration and higher levels of collective intelligence.
  • Augmentation. Increasingly we will see a trend towards augmenting things with other things. For example, augmenting a Web page or data set with links or notes from another Web page or data set. Or augmenting reality by superimposing video and data onto a live video image on a mobile phone. Or augmenting our bodies with direct connections to computers and the Web.

If these are all strands in a larger pattern, then what is the megatrend they are all contributing to? I think ultimately it’s collective intelligence — not just of humans, but also our computing systems, working in concert.

Collective Intelligence

I think that these trends are all combining, and going real-time. Effectively what we’re seeing is the evolution of a global collective mind, a theme I keep coming back to again and again. This collective mind is not just comprised of humans, but also of software and computers and information, all interlinked into one unimaginably complex system: A system that senses the universe and itself, that thinks, feels, and does things, on a planetary scale. And as humanity spreads out around the solar system and eventually the galaxy, this system will spread as well, and at times splinter and reproduce.

But that’s in the very distant future still. In the nearer term — the next 100 years or so — we’re going to go through some enormous changes. As the world becomes increasingly networked and social the way collective thinking and decision making take place is going to be radically restructured.

Social Evolution

Existing and established social, political and economic structures are going to either evolve or be overturned and replaced. Everything from the way news and entertainment are created and consumed, to how companies, cities and governments are managed will change radically. Top-down beaurocratic control systems are simply not going to be able to keep up or function effectively in this new world of distributed, omnidirectional collective intelligence.

Physical Evolution

As humanity and our Web of information and computatoins begins to function as a single organism, we will evolve literally, into a new species: Whatever is after the homo sapien. The environment we will live in will be a constantly changing sea of collective thought in which nothing and nobody will be isolated. We will be more interdependent than ever before. Interdependence leads to symbiosis, and eventually to the loss of generality and increasing specialization. As each of us is able to draw on the collective mind, the global brain, there may be less pressure on us to do things on our own that used to be solitary. What changes to our bodies, minds and organizations may result from these selective evolutionary pressures? I think we’ll see several, over multi-thousand year timescales, or perhaps faster if we start to genetically engineer ourselves:

  • Individual brains will get less good at things like memorization and recall, calculation, reasoning, and long-term planning and action.
  • Individual brains will get better at multi-tasking, information filtering, trend detection, and social communication. The parts of the nervous system involved in processing live information will increase disproportionately to other parts.
  • Our bodies may actually improve in certain areas. We will become more, not less, mobile, as computation and the Web become increasingly embedded into our surroundings, and into augmented views of our environments. This may cause our bodies to get into better health and shape since we will be less sedentary, less at our desks, less in front of TV’s. We’ll be moving around in the world, connected to everything and everyone no matter where we are. Physical strength will probably decrease overall as we will need to do less manual labor of any kind.

These are just some of the changes that are likely to occur as a result of the things we’re working on today. The Web and the emerging Real-Time Web are just a prelude of things to come.

The Next Generation of Web Search — Search 3.0

The next generation of Web search is coming sooner than expected. And with it we will see several shifts in the way people search, and the way major search engines provide search functionality to consumers.

Web 1.0, the first decade of the Web (1989 – 1999), was characterized by a distinctly desktop-like search paradigm. The overriding idea was that the Web is a collection of documents, not unlike the folder tree on the desktop, that must be searched and ranked hierarchically. Relevancy was considered to be how closely a document matched a given query string.

Web 2.0, the second decade of the Web (1999 – 2009), ushered in the beginnings of a shift towards social search. In particular blogging tools, social bookmarking tools, social networks, social media sites, and microblogging services began to organize the Web around people and their relationships. This added the beginnings of a primitive “web of trust” to the search repertoire, enabling search engines to begin to take the social value of content (as evidences by discussions, ratings, sharing, linking, referrals, etc.) as an additional measurment in the relevancy equation. Those items which were both most relevant on a keyword level, and most relevant in the social graph (closer and/or more popular in the graph), were considered to be more relevant. Thus results could be ranked according to their social value — how many people in the community liked them and current activity level — as
well as by semantic relevancy measures.

In the coming third decade of the Web, Web 3.0 (2009 – 2019), there will be another shift in the search paradigm. This is a shift to from the past to the present, and from the social to the personal.

Established search engines like Google rank results primarily by keyword (semantic) relevancy. Social search engines rank results primarily by activity and social value (Digg, Twine 1.0, etc.). But the new search engines of the Web 3.0 era will also take into account two additional factors when determining relevancy: timeliness, and personalization.

Google returns the same results for everyone. But why should that be the case? In fact, when two different people search for the same information, they may want to get very different kinds of results. Someone who is a novice in a field may want beginner-level information to rank higher in the results than someone who is an expert. There may be a desire to emphasize things that are novel over things that have been seen before, or that have happened in the past — the more timely something is the more relevant it may be as well.

These two themes — present and personal — will define the next great search experience.

To accomplish this, we need to make progress on a number of fronts.

First of all, search engines need better ways to understand what content is, without having to do extensive computation. The best solution for this is to utilize metadata and the methods of the emerging semantic web.

Metadata reduces the need for computation in order to determine what content is about — it makes that explicit and machine-understandable. To the extent that machine-understandable metadata is added or generated for the Web, it will become more precisely searchable and productive for searchers.

This applies especially to the area of the real-time Web, where for example short “tweets” of content contain very little context to support good natural-language processing. There a little metadata can go a long way. In addition, of course metadata makes a dramatic difference in search of the larger non-real-time Web as well.

In addition to metadata, search engines need to modify their algorithms to be more personalized. Instead of a “one-size fits all” ranking for each query, the ranking may differ for different people depending on their varying interests and search histories.

Finally, to provide better search of the present, search has to become more realtime. To this end, rankings need to be developed that surface not only what just happened now, but what happened recently and is also trending upwards and/or of note. Realtime search has to be more than merely listing search results chronologically. There must be effective ways to filter the noise and surface what’s most important effectively. Social graph analysis is a key tool for doing this, but in
addition, powerful statistical analysis and new visualizations may also be required to make a compelling experience.

Nowism — A Theme for the New Era?

DRAFT 1 — A Work in Progress

Introduction

Here’s an idea I’ve been thinking about: it’s a concept for a new philosophy, or perhaps just a name for a grassroots philosophy that seems to be emerging on its own. It’s called “Nowism.” The view that now is what’s most important, because now is where one’s life actually happens.

Certainly we have all heard terms like Ram Das’ famous, “Be here now” and we may be familiar with the writings of Eckhart Tolle and his “Power of Now” and others. In addition there was the “Me generation” and the more recent idea of “living in the now.” On the Web there is also now a growing shift towards real-time, what I call the Stream.

These are all examples of the emergence of this trend. But I think these are just the beginnings of this movement — a movement towards a subtle but major shift in the orientation of our civilization’s collective attention. This is a shift towards the now, in every dimension of our lives. Our personal lives, professional lives, in business, in government, in technology, and even in religion and spirituality.

I have a hypothesis that this philosophy — this worldview that the “now” is more important than the past or the future, may come to characterize this new century we are embarking on. If this is true, then it will have profound effects on the direction we go in as a civilization.

It does appear that the world is becoming increasingly now-oriented; more real-time, high-resolution, high-bandwidth. The present moment, the now, is getting increasingly flooded with fast-moving and information-rich streams of content and communication.

As this happens we are increasingly focusing our energy on keeping up with, managing, and making sense of, the now. The now is also effectively getting shorter — in that more happens in less time, making the basic clockrate of the now effectively faster. I’ve written about this elsewhere.

Given that the shift to a civilization that is obsessively focused on the now is occurring, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether this will gradually penetrate into the underlying metaphors and worldviews of coming generations, and how it might manifest as differences from our present-day mindsets.

How might people who live more in the now differ from those who paid more attention to the past, or the future? For example, I would assert that the world in and before the 19th century was focused more on the past than the now or the future. The 20th century was characterized by a shift to focus more on the future than the past or the now. The 21st century will be characterized by a shift in focus onto the now, and away from the past and the future.

How might people who live more in the now think about themselves and the world in coming decades. What are the implications for consumers, marketers, strategists, policymakers, educators?

With this in mind, I’ve attempted to write up what I believe might be the start of a summary of what this emerging worldview of “Nowism” might be like.

It has implications on several levels: social, economic, political, and spiritual.

Nowism Defined

Like Buddhism, Taoism, and other “isms,” Nowism is a view on the nature of reality, with implications for how to live one’s life and how to interpret and relate to the world and other people.

Simply put: Nowism is the philosophy that the span of experience called “now” is fundamental. In other words there is nothing other than now. Life happens in the now. The now is what matters most.

Nowism does not claim to be mutually exclusive with any other religion. It merely claims that all other religions are contained within it’s scope — they, like everything else, take place exclusively within the now, not outside it. In that respect the now, in its actual nature, is fundamentally greater than any other conceivable philosophical or religious system, including even Nowism itself.

Risks of Unawakened Nowism

Nowism is in some ways potentially short-sighted in that there is less emphasis on planning for the future and correspondingly more emphasis on living the present as fully as possible. Instead of making decisions with their effects in the future foremost in mind, the focus is on making the optimal immediate decisions in the context of the present. However, what is optimal in the present may not be optimalover longer spans of time and space.

What may be optimal in the now of a particular individual may not at all be optimal in the nows of other individuals. Nowism can therefore lead to extremely selfish behavior that actually harms others, or it can lead to extremely generous behavior on a scale that far transcends the individual, if one strives to widen their own experience of the now sufficiently.

Very few individuals will ever do the necessary work to develop themselves to the point where their actual experience of now is dramatically wider than average. It is however possible to do this, while quite rare. Such individuals are capable of living exclusively in the now while still always acting with the long-term benefit of both themselves all other beings in mind.

The vast majority of people however will tend towards a more limited and destructive form of Nowism, in which they get lost in deeper forms of consumerism, content and media immersion, hedonism, and conceptualization. Rather than being freed by the now, they will be increasingly imprisoned by it.

This lower form of Nowism — what might be called unawakened Nowism — is characterized by an intense focus on immediate self-gratification, without concern or a sense of responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions on oneself or others in the future. This kind of living in the moment, while potentially extremely fun, tends to end badly for most people. Fortunately most people outgrow this tendency towards extremely unawakened Nowism after graduating college and/or entering the workforce.

Abandoning extremely unawakened Nowist lifestyles doesn’t necessarily result in one realizing any form of awakened Nowism. One might simply remain in a kind of dormant state, sleepwalking through life, not really living fully in the present, not fully experiencing the present in all its potential. To reach this level of higher Nowism, or advanced Nowism, one must either have a direct spontaneous experience of awakening to the deeper qualities of the now, or one must study, practice and work with teachers and friends who can help them to reach such a direct experience of the now.

Benefits of Awakened Nowism: Spiritual and Metaphysical Implications of Nowist Philosophy

In the 21st Century, I believe Nowism may actually become an emerging movement. With it there will come a new conception of the self, and of the divine. The self will be realized to be simultaneously more empty and much vaster than was previously thought. The divine will be understood more directly and with less conceptualization. More people will have spiritual realization this way, because in this more direct approach there is less conceptual material to get caught up in. The experience of now is simply left as it is — as direct and unmediated, unfettered, and unadulterated as possible.

This is a new kind of spirituality perhaps. One in which there is less personification of the divine, and less use of the concept of a personified deity as an excuse or justification for various worldy actions (like wars and laws, for example).

Concepts about the nature of divinity have been used by humans for millenia as tools for various good and bad purposes. But in Nowism, these concepts are completely abandoned. This also means abandoning the notion that there is or is not a divine nature at the core of reality, and each one of us. Nowists do not get caught up in such unresolvable debates. However, at the same time, Nowists do strive for a direct realization of the now — one that is as unmediated and nonconceptual as possible — and that direct realization is considered to BE thedivine nature itself.

Nowism does not assert that nothing exists or that nothing matters. Such views are nihilism not Nowism. Nowism does not assert that what happens is caused or uncaused — such views are those of the materialists and the idealists, not Nowism. Instead Nowism asserts the principles of dependent origination, in which cause and-effect appears to take place, even though it is an illusory process and does not truly exist. On the basis of a relative-level cause-effect process, an ethical system can be founded which seeks to optimize happiness and minimize unhappiness for the greatest number of beings, by adjusting ones actions so as to create causes that lead to increasingly happy effects for oneself and others, increasingly often. Thus the view of Nowism does not lead to hedonism — in fact, anyone who makes a careful study of the now will reach the conclusion that cause and effect operates unfailingly and therefore is a key tool for optimizing happiness in the now.

Advanced Nowists don’t ignore cause-and-effect, in fact quite the contrary: they pay increasingly close attention to cuase-and-effect and their particular actions. The natural result is that they begin to live a life that is both happier and that leads to more happiness for all other beings — at least this is the goal and example of the best-case. The fact that cause-and-effect is in operation, even though it is notfundamentally real, is the root of Nowist ethics. It is precisely the same as the Buddhist conception of the identity of emptiness and dependent-origination.

Numerous principles follow from the core beliefs of Nowism. They include practical guidance for living ones life with a minimum of unnecessary suffering (of oneself as well as others), further principles concerning the nature of reality and the mind, and advanced techniques and principles for reaching greater realizations of the now.

As to the nature of what is taking place right now: from the Nowist perspective, it is beyond concepts, for all concepts, like everything else, appear and disappear like visions or mirages, without ever truly-existing. This corresponds precisely to the Buddhist conception of emptiness.

The scope of the now is unlimited, however for the uninitiated the now is usually considered to be limited to the personal present experience of the individual. Nowist adepts, on the other hand, assert that the scope of the now may be modified (narrowed or widened) through various exercises including meditation, prayer, intense physical activity, art, dance and ritual, drugs, chanting, fasting, etc.

Narrowing the scope of the now is akin to reducing the resolution of present experience. Widening the scope is akin to increasing the resolution. A narrower now is a smaller experience, with less information content. A wider now is a larger experience, with more information content.

Within the context of realizing that now is all there is, one explores carefully and discovers that now does not contain anything findable (such as a self, other, or any entity or fundamental basis for any objective or subjective phenomenon, let alone any nature that could be called “nowness” or the now itself).

In short the now is totally devoid of anything findable whatsoever, although sensory phenomena do continue to appear to arise within it unceasingly. Such phenomena, and the sensory apparatus, body, brain, mind and any conception of self that arises in reaction to them, are all merely illusion-like appearances with no objectively-findable ultimate, fundamental, or independent existence.

This state is not unlike the analogy of a dream in which oneself and all the other places and characters are all equally illusory, or of a completely immersive virtual reality experience that is so convincing one forgets it isn’t real.

Nowism does not assert a divine being or deity, although it also is not mutually exclusive with the existence of one or more such beings. However all such beings are considered to be no more real than any other illusory appearance, such as the appearances of sentient beings, planets, stars, fundamental particles, etc. Any phenomena — whether natural or supernatural — are equally empty of any independent true existince. They are all illusory in nature.

However, Nowists do assert that the nature of the now itself, while completely empty, is in fact the nature of consciousness and what we call life. It cannot be computed, simulated or modeled in an information system, program, machine, or representation of any kind. Any such attempts to represent the now are merely phenomena appearing within the now, not the now itself. The now is fundamentally transcendental in this respect.

The now is not limited to any particular region in space or time, let alone to any individual being’s mind. There is no way to assert there is a single now, or many nows, for no nows are actually findable.

The now is the gap between the past and the future, however, when searched for it cannot really be found, nor can the past or future be found. The past is gone, the future hasn’t happened yet, and the now is infinite, constantly changing, and ungraspable. The entire space-time continuum is in fact within a total all-embracing now, the cosmically extended now that is beyond the limited personalized scope of now we presently think we have. Through practice this can be gradually glimpsed and experienced to greater degrees.

As the now is explored to greater depths, one begins to find that it has astonishing implications. Simultaneously much of the Zen literature — especially the koans — starts to make sense at last.

While Nowism could be said to be a branch of Buddhism, I would actually say it might be the other way arond. Nowism is really the most fundamental, pure, philosophy — stripped of all cultural baggage and historical concepts, and retaining only what is absolutely essential.

Video: My Talk on The Future of Libraries — "Library 3.0"

If you are interested in semantics, taxonomies, education, information overload and how libraries are evolving, you may enjoy this video of my talk on the Semantic Web and the Future of Libraries at the OCLC Symposium at the American Library Association Midwinter 2009 Conference. This event focused around a dialogue between David Weinberger and myself, moderated by Roy Tennant. We were forutnate to have an audience of about 500 very vocal library directors in the audience and it was an intensive day of thinking together. Thanks to the folks at OCLC for a terrific and really engaging event!

Video: My Talk on the Evolution of the Global Brain at the Singularity Summit

If you are interested in collective intelligence, consciousness, the global brain and the evolution of artificial intelligence and superhuman intelligence, you may want to see my talk at the 2008 Singularity Summit. The videos from the Summit have just come online.

(Many thanks to Hrafn Thorisson who worked with me as my research assistant for this talk).

Fast Company Interview — "Connective Intelligence"

In this interview with Fast Company, I discuss my concept of "connective intelligence." Intelligence is really in the connections between things, not the things themselves. Twine facilitates smarter connections between content, and between people. This facilitates the emergence of higher levels of collective intelligence.

Interest Networks are at a Tipping Point

UPDATE: There’s already a lot of good discussion going on around this post in my public twine.

I’ve been writing about a new trend that I call “interest networking” for a while now. But I wanted to take the opportunity before the public launch of Twine on Tuesday (tomorrow) to reflect on the state of this new category of applications, which I think is quickly reaching its tipping point. The concept is starting to catch on as people reach for more depth around their online interactions.

In fact – that’s the ultimate value proposition of interest networks – they move us beyond the super poke and towards something more meaningful. In the long-term view, interest networks are about building a global knowledge commons. But in the short term, the difference between social networks and interest networks is a lot like the difference between fast food and a home-cooked meal – interest networks are all about substance.

At a time when social media fatigue is setting in, the news cycle is growing shorter and shorter, and the world is delivered to us in soundbytes and catchphrases, we crave substance. We go to great lengths in pursuit of substance. Interest networks solve this problem – they deliver substance.t

So, what is an interest network?

In short, if a social network is about who you are interested in, an interest network is about what you are interested in. It’s the logical next step.

Twine for example, is an interest network that helps you share information with friends, family, colleagues and groups, based on mutual interests. Individual “twines” are created for content around specific subjects. This content might include bookmarks, videos, photos, articles, e-mails, notes or even documents. Twines may be public or private and can serve individuals, small groups or even very large groups of members.

I have also written quite a bit about the Semantic Web and the Semantic Graph, and Tim Berners-Lee has recently started talking about what he calls the GGG (Giant Global Graph). Tim and I are in agreement that social networks merely articulate the relationships between people. Social networks do not surface the equally, if not more important, relationships between people and places, places and organizations, places and other places, organization and other organizations, organization and events, documents and documents, and so on.

This is where interest networks come in. It’s still early days to be clear, but interest networks are operating on the premise of tapping into a multi–dimensional graph that manifests the complexity and substance of our world, and delivers the best of that world to you, every day.

We’re seeing more and more companies think about how to capitalize on this trend. There are suddenly (it seems, but this category has been building for many months) lots of different services that can be viewed as interest networks in one way or another, and here are some examples:

What all of these interest networks have in common is some sort of a bottom-up, user-driven crawl of the Web, which is the way that I’ve described Twine when we get the question about how we propose to index the entire Web (the answer: we don’t.

We let our users tell us what they’re most interested in, and we follow their lead).

Most interest networks exhibit the following characteristics as well:

  • They have some sort of bookmarking/submission/markup function to store and map data (often using existing metaphors, even if what’s under the hood is new)
  • They also have some sort of social sharing function to provide the network benefit (this isn’t exclusive to interest networks, obviously, but it is characteristic)
  • And in most cases, interest networks look to add some sort of “smarts” or “recommendations” capability to the mix (that is, you get more out than you put in)

This last bullet point is where I see next-generation interest networks really providing the most benefit over social bookmarking tools, wikis, collaboration suites and pure social networks of one kind or another.

To that end, we think that Twine is the first of a new breed of intelligent applications that really get to know you better and better over time – and that the more you use Twine, the more useful it will become. Adding your content to Twine is an investment in the future of your data, and in the future of your interests.

At first Twine begins to enrich your data with semantic tags and links to related content via our recommendations engine that learns over time. Twine also crawls any links it sees in your content and gathers related content for you automatically – adding it to your personal or group search engine for you, and further fleshing out the semantic graph of your interests which in turn results in even more relevant recommendations.

The point here is that adding content to Twine, or other next-generation interest networks, should result in increasing returns. That’s a key characteristic, in fact, of the interest networks of the future – the idea that the ratio of work (input) to utility (output) has no established ceiling.

Another key characteristic of interest networks may be in how they monetize. Instead of being advertising-driven, I think they will focus more on a marketing paradigm. They will be to marketing what search engines were to advertising. For example, Twine will be monetizing our rich model of individual and group interests, using our recommendation engine. When we roll this capability out in 2009, we will deliver extremely relevant, useful content, products and offers directly to users who have demonstrated they are really interested in such information, according to their established and ongoing preferences.

6 months ago, you could not really prove that “interest networking” was a trend, and certainly it wasn’t a clearly defined space. It was just an idea, and a goal. But like I said, I think that we’re at a tipping point, where the technology is getting to a point at which we can deliver greater substance to the user, and where the culture is starting to crave exactly this kind of service as a way of making the Web meaningful again.

I think that interest networks are a huge market opportunity for many startups thinking about what the future of the Web will be like, and I think that we’ll start to see the term used more and more widely. We may even start to see some attention from analysts — Carla, Jeremiah, and others, are you listening?

Now, I obviously think that Twine is THE interest network of choice. After all we helped to define the category, and we’re using the Semantic Web to do it. There’s a lot of potential in our engine and our application, and the growing community of passionate users we’ve attracted.

Our 1.0 release really focuses on UE/usability, which was a huge goal for us based on user feedback from our private beta, which began in March of this year. I’ll do another post soon talking about what’s new in Twine. But our TOS (time on site) at 6 minutes/user (all time) and 12 minutes/user (over the last month) is something that the team here is most proud of – it tells us that Twine is sticky, and that “the dogs are eating the dog food.”

Now that anyone can join, it will be fun and gratifying to watch Twine grow.

Still, there is a lot more to come, and in 2009 our focus is going to shift back to extending our Semantic Web platform and turning on more of the next-generation intelligence that we’ve been building along the way. We’re going to take interest networking to a whole new level.

Stay tuned!

Watch My best Talk: The Global Brain is Coming

I’ve posted a link to a video of my best talk — given at the GRID ’08 Conference in Stockholm this summer. It’s about the growth of collective intelligence and the Semantic Web, and the future and role the media. Read more and get the video here. Enjoy!

New Video: Leading Minds from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft talk about their Visions for Future of The Web

Video from my panel at DEMO Fall ’08 on the Future of the Web is now available.

I moderated the panel, and our panelists were:

Howard Bloom, Author, The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century

Peter Norvig, Director of Research, Google Inc.

Jon Udell, Evangelist, Microsoft Corporation

Prabhakar Raghavan, PhD, Head of Research and Search Strategy, Yahoo! Inc.

The panel was excellent, with many DEMO attendees saying it was the best panel they had ever seen at DEMO.

Many new and revealing insights were provided by our excellent panelists. I was particularly interested in the different ways that Google and Yahoo describe what they are working on. They covered lots of new and interesting information about their thinking. Howard Bloom added fascinating comments about the big picture and John Udell helped to speak about Microsoft’s longer-term views as well.

Enjoy!!!

The Future of the Desktop

This is an older version of this article. The most recent version is located here:

http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/future_of_the_desktop.php

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I have spent the last year really thinking about the future of the Web. But lately I have been thinking more about the future of the desktop. In particular, here are some questions I am thinking about and some answers I’ve come up so far.

(Author’s Note: This is a raw, first-draft of what I think it will be like. Please forgive any typos — I am still working on this and editing it…)

What Will Happen to the Desktop?

As we enter the third decade of the Web we are seeing an increasing shift from local desktop applications towards Web-hosted software-as-a-service (SaaS). The full range of standard desktop office tools (word processors, spreadsheets, presentation tools, databases, project management, drawing tools, and more) can now be accessed as Web-hosted apps within the browser. The same is true for an increasing range of enterprise applications. This process seems to be accelerating.

As more kinds of applications become available in Web-based form, the Web browser is becoming the primary framework in which end-users work and interact. But what will happen to the desktop? Will it too eventually become a Web-hosted application? Will the Web browser swallow up the desktop? Where is the desktop headed?

Is the desktop of the future going to just be a web-hosted version of the same old-fashioned desktop metaphors we have today?

No. There have already been several attempts at doing this — and they never catch on. People don’t want to manage all their information on the Web in the same interface they use to manage data and apps on their local PC.

Partly this is due to the difference in user experience between using files and folders on a local machine and doing that in “simulated” fashion via some Flash-based or HTML-based imitation of a desktop. Imitations desktops to-date have simply been clunky and slow imitations of the real-thing at best. Others have been overly slick. But one thing they all have in common: None of them have nailed it. The desktop of the future – what some have called “the Webtop” – still has yet to be invented.

It’s going to be a hosted web service

Is the desktop even going to exist anymore as the Web becomes increasingly important? Yes, there will have to be some kind of interface that we consider to be our personal “home” and “workspace” — but ultimately it will have to be a unified space that all our devices connect to and share. This requires that it be a hosted online service.

Currently we have different information spaces on different devices (laptop, mobile device, PC). These will merge. Native local clients could be created for various devices, but ultimately the simplest and therefore most likely choice is to just use the browser as the client. This coming “Webtop” will provide an interface to your local devices, applications and information, as well as to your online life and information.

Today we think of our Web browser running inside our desktop as an applicaiton. But actually it will be the other way around in the future: Our desktop will run inside our browser as an application.

Instead of the browser running inside, or being launched from, some kind of next-generation desktop web interface technology, it’s will be the other way around: The browser will be the shell and the desktop application will run within it either as a browser add-in, or as a web-based application.

The Web 3.0 desktop is going to be completely merged with the Web — it is going to be part of the Web. In fact there may eventually be no distinction between the desktop and the Web anymore.

The focus shifts from information to attention

As our digital lives shift from being focused on the old fashioned desktop to the Web environment we will see a shift from organizing information spatially (directories, folders, desktops, etc.) to organizing information temporally (feeds, lifestreams, microblogs, timelines, etc.).

Instead of being just a directory, the desktop of the future is going to be more like a feed reader or social news site. The focus will be on keeping up with all the stuff flowing in and out of the user’s environment. The interface will be tuned to help the user understand what the trends are, rather than just on how things are organized.

The focus will be on helping the user to manage their attention rather than just their information. This is a leap to the meta-level: A second-order desktop. Instead of just being about the information (the first-order), it is going to be about what is happening with the information (the second-order).

Users are going to shift from acting as librarians to acting as daytraders.

Our digital roles are already shifting from acting as librarians to becoming more like daytraders. In the PC era we were all focused on trying to manage the stuff on our computers — in other words, we were acting as librarians. But this is going to shift. Librarians organize stuff, but daytraders are focused on discovering and keeping track of trends. It’s a very different focus and activity, and it’s what we are all moving towards.

We are already spending more of our time keeping up with change and detecting trends, than on organizing information. In the coming decade the shelf-life of information is going to become vanishingly short and the focus will shift from storage and recall to real-time filtering, trend detection and prediction.

The Webtop will be more social and will leverage and integrate collective intelligence

The Webtop is going to be more socially oriented than desktops of today — it will have built-in messaging and social networking, as well as social-media sharing, collaborative filtering, discussions, and other community features.

The social dimension of our lives is becoming perhaps our most important source of information. We get information via email from friends, family and colleagues. We get information via social networks and social media sharing services. We co-create information with others in communities.

The social dimension is also starting to play a more important role in our information management and discovery activities. Instead of those activities remaining as solitary, they are becoming more communal. For example many social bookmarking and social news sites use community sentiment and collaborative filtering to help to highlight what is most interesting, useful or important.

It’s going to have powerful semantic search and social search capabilities built-in

The Webtop is going to have more powerful search built-in. This search will combine both social and semantic search features. Users will be able to search their information and rank it by social sentiment (for example, “find documents about x and rank them by how many of my friends liked them.”)

Semantic search will enable highly granular search and navigation of information along a potentially open-ended range of properties and relationships.

For example you will be able to search in a highly structured way — for example, search for products you once bookmarked that have a price of $10.95 and are on-sale this week. Or search for documents you read which were authored by Sue and related to project X, in the last month.

The semantics of the future desktop will be open-ended. That is to say that users as well as other application and information providers will be able to extend it with custom schemas, new data types, and custom fields to any piece of information.

Interactive shared spaces instead of folders

Forget about shared folders — that is an outmoded paradigm. Instead, the  new metaphor will be interactive shared spaces.

The need for shared community space is currently being provided for online by forums, blogs, social network profile pages, wikis, and new community sites. But as we move into Web 3.0 these will be replaced by something that combines their best features into one. These next-generation shared spaces will be like blogs, wikis, communities, social networks, databases, workspaces and search engines in one.

Any group of two or more individuals will be able to participate in a shared space that connects their desktops for a particular purpose. These new shared spaces will not only provide richer semantics in the underlying data, social network, and search, but they will also enable groups to seamlessly and collectively add, organize, track, manage, discuss, distribute, and search for information of mutual interest.

The personal cloud

The future desktop will function like a “personal cloud” for users. It will connect all their identities, data, relationships, services and activities in one virtual integrated space. All incoming and outgoing activity will flow through this space. All applications and services that a user makes use of will connect to it.

The personal cloud may not have a center, but rather may be comprised of many separate sub-spaces, federated around the Web and hosted by different service-providers. Yet from an end-user perspective it will function as a seamlessly integrated service. Users will be able to see and navigate all their information and applications, as if they were in one connected space, regardless of where they are actually hosted. Users will be able to search their personal cloud from any point within it.

Open data, linked data and open-standards based semantics

The underlying data in the future desktop, and in all associated services it connects, will be represented using open-standard data formats. Not only will the data be open, but the semantics of the data – the schema – will also be defined in an open way. The emerigng Semantic Web provides a good infrastructure for enabling this to happen.

The value of open linked-data and open semantics is that data will not be held prisoner anywhere and can easily be integrated with other data.

Users will be able to seamlessly move and integrate their data, or parts of their data, in different services. This means that your Webtop might even be portable to a different competing Webtop provider someday. If and when that becomes possible, how will Webtop providers compete to add value?

It’s going to be smart

One of the most important aspects of the coming desktop is that it’s going to be smart. It’s going to learn and help users to be more productive. Artificial intelligence is one of the key ways that competing Webtop providers will differentiate their offerings.

As you use it, it’s going to learn about your interests, relationships, current activities, information and preferences. It will adaptively self-organize to help you focus your attention on what is most important to whatever context you are in.

When reading something while you are taking a trip to Milan it may organize itself to be more contextually relevant to that time, place and context. When you later return home to San Francisco it will automatically adapt and shift to your home context. When you do a lot of searches about a certain product it will realize your context and intent has to do with that product and will adapt to help you with that activity for a while, until your behavior changes.

Your desktop will actually be a semantic knowledge base on the back-end. It will encode a rich semantic graph of your information, relationships, interests, behavior and preferences. You will be able to permit other applications to access part or all of your graph to datamine it and provide you with value-added views and even automated intelligent assistance.

For example, you might allow an agent that cross-links things to see all your data: it would go and add cross links to relevant things onto all the things you have created or collected. Another agent that makes personalized buying recommendations might only get to see your shopping history across all shopping sites you use.

Your desktop may also function as a simple personal assistant at times. You will be able to converse with your desktop eventually — through a conversational agent interface. While on the road you will be able to email or SMS in questions to it and get back immediate intelligent answers. You will even be able to do this via a voice interface.

For example, you might ask, “where is my next meeting?” or “what Japanese restaurants do I like in LA?” or “What is Sue’s Smith’s phone number?” and you would get back answers. You could also command it to do things for you — like reminding you to do something, or helping you keep track of an interest, or monitoring for something and alerting you when it happens.

Because your future desktop will connect all the relationships in your digital life — relationships connecting people, information, behavior, prefences and applications — it will be the ultimate place to learn about your interests and preferences.

Federated, open policies and permissions

This rich graph of meta-data that comprises your future desktop will enable the next-generation of smart services to learn about you and help you in an incredibly personalized manner. It will also of course be rife with potential for abuse and privacy will be a major function and concern.

One of the biggest enabling technologies that will be necessary is a federated model for sharing meta-data about policies and permissions on data. Information that is considered to be personal and private in Web site X should be recognized and treated as such by other applications and websites you choose to share that information with. This will require a way for sharing meta-data about your policies and permissions between different accounts and applicaitons you use.

The semantic web provides a good infrastructure for building and deploying a decentralized framework for policy and privacy integration, but it has yet to be developed, let alone adopted. For the full vision of the future desktop to emerge a universally accepted standard for exchanging policy and permission data will be a necessary enabling technology.

Who is most likely to own the future desktop?

When I think about what the future desktop is going to look like it seems to be a convergence of several different kinds of services that we currently view as separate.

It will be hosted on the cloud and accessible across all devices. It will place more emphasis on social interaction, social filtering, and collective intelligence. It will provide a very powerful and extensible data model with support for both unstructured and arbitrarily structured information. It will enable almost peer-to-peer like search federation, yet still have a unified home page and user-experience. It will be smart and personalized. It will be highly decentralized yet will manage identity, policies and permissions in an integrated cohesive and transparent manner across services.

By cobbling together a number of different services that exist today you could build something like this in a decentralized fashion. Is that how the desktop of the future will come about? Or will it be a new application provided by one player with a lot of centralized market power? Or could an upstart suddently emerge with the key enabling technologies to make this possible? It’s hard to predict, but one thing is certain: It will be an interesting process to watch.

Life in Perpetual Beta: The Film

Melissa Pierce is a filmmaker who is making a film about "Life in Perpetual Beta." It’s about how people who are adapting and reinventing themselves in the moment, and a new philosophy or approach to life. She’s interviewed a number of interesting people, and while I was in Chicago recently, she spoke with me as well. Here is a clip about how I view the philosophy of living in Beta. Her film is also in perpetual beta, and you can see the clips from her interviews on her blog as the film evolves. Eventually it will be released through the indie film circuit, and it looks like it will be a cool film. By the way, she is open to getting sponsors so if you like this idea and want your brand on the opening credits, drop her a line!

Peace in the Middle East: Could Alternative Energy Be the Solution?

I have been thinking about the situation in the Middle East and also the rise of oil prices, peak oil, and the problem of a world economy based on energy scarcity rather than abundance. There is, I believe, a way to solve the problems in the Middle East, and the energy problems facing the world, at the same time. But it requires thinking “outside the box.”

Middle Eastern nations must take the lead in freeing the world from dependence on their oil. This is not only their best strategy for the future of their nations and their people, but also it is what will ultimately be best for the region and the whole world.

It is inevitable that someone is going to invent a new technology that frees the world from dependence on fossil fuels. When that happens all oil empires will suddenly collapse. Far-sighted, visionary leaders in oil-producing nations must ensure that their nations are in position to lead the coming non-fossil-fuel energy revolution. This is the wisdom of “cannibalize yourself before someone else does.”

Middle Eastern nations should invest more heavily than any other nations in inventing and supplying new alternative energy technologies. For example: hydrogen, solar, biofuels, zero point energy, magnetic power, and the many new emerging alternatives to fossil fuels. This is a huge opportunity for the Middle East not only for economic reasons, but also because it may just be the key to bringing about long-term sustainable peace in the region.

There is a finite supply of oil in the Middle East — the game will and must eventually end. Are Middle Eastern nations thinking far enough ahead about this or not? There is a tremendous opportunity for them if they can take the initiative on this front and there is an equally tremendous risk if they do not. If they do not have a major stake in whatever comes after fossil fuels, they will be left with nothing when whatever is next inevitably happens (which might be very soon).

Any Middle Eastern leader who is not thinking very seriously about this issue right now is selling their people short. I sincerely advise them to make this a major focus going forward. Not only will this help them to improve quality of life for their people now and in the future, but it is the best way to help bring about world peace. The Middle East has the potential to lead a huge and lucrative global energy Renaissance. All it takes is vision and courage to push the frontier and to think outside of the box.

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If Social Networks Were Like Cars…

I have been thinking a lot about social networks lately, and why there are so many of them, and what will happen in that space.

Today I had what I think is a "big realization" about this.

Everyone, including myself, seems to think that there is only room for one big social network, and it looks like Facebook is winning that race. But what if that assumption is simply wrong from the start?

What if social networks are more like automobile brands? In other words, there can, will and should be many competing brands in the space?

Social networks no longer compete on terms of who has what members. All my friends are in pretty much every major social network.

I also don’t need more than one social network, for the same reason — my friends are all in all of them. How many different ways do I need to reach the same set of people? I only need one.

But the Big Realization is that no social network satisfies all types of users. Some people are more at home in a place like LinkedIn than they are in Facebook, for example. Others prefer MySpace.  There are always going to be different social networks catering to the common types of people (different age groups, different personalities, different industries, different lifestyles, etc.).

The Big Realization implies that all the social networks are going to be able to interoperate eventually, just like almost all email clients and servers do today. Email didn’t begin this way. There were different networks, different servers and different clients, and they didn’t all speak to each other. To communicate with certain people you had to use a certain email network, and/or a certain email program. Today almost all email systems interoperate directly or at least indirectly. The same thing is going to happen in the social networking space.

Today we see the first signs of this interoperability emerging as social networks open their APIs and enable increasing integration. Currently there is a competition going on to see which "open" social network can get the most people and sites to use it. But this is an illusion. It doesn’t matter who is dominant, there are always going to be alternative social networks, and the pressure to interoperate will grow until it happens. It is only a matter of time before they connect together.

I think this should be the greatest fear at companies like Facebook. For when it inevitably happens they will be on a level playing field competing for members with a lot of other companies large and small. Today Facebook and Google’s scale are advantages, but in a world of interoperability they may actually be disadvantages — they cannot adapt, change or innovate as fast as smaller, nimbler startups.

Thinking of social networks as if they were automotive brands also reveals interesting business opportunities. There are still several unowned opportunities in the space.

Myspace is like the car you have in high school. Probably not very expensive, probably used, probably a bit clunky. It’s fine if you are a kid driving around your hometown.

Facebook is more like the car you have in college. It has a lot of your junk in it, it is probably still not cutting edge, but its cooler and more powerful.

LinkedIn kind of feels like a commuter car to me. It’s just for business, not for pleasure or entertainment.

So who owns the "adult luxury sedan" category? Which one is the BMW of social networks?

Who owns the sportscar category? Which one is the Ferrari of social networks?

Who owns the entry-level commuter car category?

Who owns equivalent of the "family stationwagon or minivan" category?

Who owns the SUV and offroad category?

You see my point. There are a number of big segments that are not owned yet, and it is really unlikely that any one company can win them all.

If all social networks are converging on the same set of features, then eventually they will be close to equal in function. The only way to differentiate them will be in terms of the brands they build and the audience segments they focus on. These in turn will cause them to emphasize certain features more than others.

In the future the question for consumers will be "Which social network is most like me? Which social network is the place for me to base my online presence?"

Sue may connect to Bob who is in a different social network — his account is hosted in a different social network. Sue will not be a member of Bob’s service, and Bob will not be a member of Sue’s, yet they will be able to form a social relationship and communication channel. This is like email. I may use Outlook and you may use Gmail, but we can still send messages to each other.

Although all social networks will interoperate eventually, depending on each person’s unique identity they may choose to be based in — to live and surf in — a particular social network that expresses their identity, and caters to it. For example, I would probably want to be surfing in the luxury SUV of social networks at this point in my life, not in the luxury sedan, not the racecar, not in the family car, not the dune-buggy. Someone else might much prefer an open source, home-built social network account running on a server they host. It shouldn’t matter — we should still be able to connect, share stuff, get notified of each other’s posts, etc. It should feel like we are in a unified social networking fabric, even though our accounts live in different services with different brands, different interfaces, and different features.

I think this is where social networks are heading. If it’s true then there are still many big business opportunities in this space.

A Few Predictions for the Near Future

This is a five minute video in which I was asked to make some predictions for the next decade about the Semantic Web, search and artificial intelligence. It was done at the NextWeb conference and was a fun interview.


Learning from the Future with Nova Spivack from Maarten on Vimeo.

My Visit to DERI — World's Premier Semantic Web Research Institute

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit, and speak at, the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI), located in Galway, Ireland. My hosts were Stefan Decker, the director of the lab, and John Breslin who is heading the SIOC project.

DERI has become the world’s premier research institute for the Semantic Web. Everyone working in the field should know about them, and if you can, you should visit the lab to see what’s happening there.

Part of the National University of Ireland, Galway. With over 100 researchers focused solely on the Semantic Web, and very significant financial backing, DERI has, to my knowledge, the highest concentration of Semantic Web expertise on the planet today. Needless to say, I was very impressed with what I saw there. Here is a brief synopsis of some of the projects that I was introduced to:

  • Semantic Web Search Engine (SWSE) and YARS, a massively scalable triplestore.  These projects are concerned with crawling and indexing the information on the Semantic Web so that end-users can find it. They have done good work on consolidating data and also on building a highly scalable triplestore architecture.
  • Sindice — An API and search infrastructure for the Semantic Web. This project is focused on providing a rapid indexing API that apps can use to get their semantic content indexed, and that can also be used by apps to do semantic searches and retrieve semantic content from the rest of the Semantic Web. Sindice provides Web-scale semantic search capabilities to any semantic application or service.
  • SIOC — Semantically Interlinked Online Communities. This is an ontology for linking and sharing data across online communities in an open manner, that is getting a lot of traction. SIOC is on its way to becoming a standard and may play a big role in enabling portability and interoperability of social Web data.
  • JeromeDL is developing technology for semantically enabled digital libraries. I was impressed with the powerful faceted navigation and search capabilities they demonstrated.
  • notitio.us. is a project for personal knowledge management of bookmarks and unstructured data.
  • SCOT, OpenTagging and Int.ere.st.  These projects are focused on making tags more interoperable, and for generating social networks and communities from tags. They provide a richer tag ontology and framework for representing, connecting and sharing tags across applications.
  • Semantic Web Services.  One of the big opportunities for the Semantic Web that is often overlooked by the media is Web services. Semantics can be used to describe Web services so they can find one another and connect, and even to compose and orchestrate transactions and other solutions across networks of Web services, using rules and reasoning capabilities. Think of this as dynamic semantic middleware, with reasoning built-in.
  • eLite. I was introduced to the eLite project, a large e-learning initiative that is applying the Semantic Web.
  • Nepomuk.  Nepomuk is a large effort supported by many big industry players. They are making a social semantic desktop and a set of developer tools and libraries for semantic applications that are being shipped in the Linux KDE distribution. This is a big step for the Semantic Web!
  • Semantic Reality. Last but not least, and perhaps one of the most eye-opening demos I saw at DERI, is the Semantic Reality project. They are using semantics to integrate sensors with the real world. They are creating an infrastructure that can scale to handle trillions of sensors eventually. Among other things I saw, you can ask things like "where are my keys?" and the system will search a network of sensors and show you a live image of your keys on the desk where you left them, and even give you a map showing the exact location. The service can also email you or phone you when things happen in the real world that you care about — for example, if someone opens the door to your office, or a file cabinet, or your car, etc. Very groundbreaking research that could seed an entire new industry.

In summary, my visit to DERI was really eye-opening and impressive. I recommend that major organizations that want to really see the potential of the Semantic Web, and get involved on a research and development level, should consider a relationship with DERI — they are clearly the leader in the space.

How about Web 3G?

I’m here at the BlogTalk conference in Cork, Ireland with a range of bloggers and technologists discussing the emerging social Web. Including myself, Ian Davis and Paul Miller from Talis, there are also a bunch of other Semantic Web folks including Dan Brickley, and a group from DERI Galway.

Over dinner a few of us were discussing the terms “Semantic Web” versus “Web 3.0” and we all felt a better term was needed. After some thinking, Ian Davis suggested “Web 3G.” I like this term better than Web 3.0 because it loses the “version number” aspect that so many objected to. It has a familiar ring to it as well, reminding me of the 3G wireless phone initiative. It also suggests Tim Berners-Lee’s “Giant Global Graph” or GGG — a synonym for the Semantic Web. Ian stayed up late and put together a nice blog post about the term, echoing many of my own sentiments about how this term should apply to a decade (the third decade of the Web), rather than to a particular technology.

A Universal Classification of Intelligence

I’ve been thinking lately about whether or not it is possible to formulate a scale of universal cognitive capabilities, such that any intelligent system — whether naturally occurring or synthetic — can be classified according to its cognitive capacity. Such a system would provide us with a normalized scientific basis by which to quantify and compare the relative cognitive capabilities of artificially intelligent systems, various species of intelligent life on Earth, and perhaps even intelligent lifeforms encountered on other planets.

One approach to such evaluation is to use a standardized test, such as an IQ test. However, this test is far too primitive and biased towards human intelligence. A dolphin would do poorly on our standardized IQ test, but that doesn’t mean much, because the test itself is geared towards humans. What is needed is a way to evaluate and compare intelligence across different species — one that is much more granular and basic.

What we need is a system that focuses on basic building blocks of intelligence, starting by measuring the presence or ability to work with fundamental cognitive constructs (such as the notion of object constancy, quantities, basic arithmetic constructs, self-constructs, etc.) and moving up towards higher-level abstractions and procedural capabilities (self-awareness, time, space, spatial and temporal reasoning, metaphors, sets, language, induction, logical reasoning, etc.).

What I am asking is whether we can develop a more "universal" way to rate and compare intelligences? Such a system would provide a way to formally evaluate and rate any kind of intelligent system — whether insect, animal, human, software, or alien — in a normalized manner.

Beyond the inherent utility of having such a rating scale, there is an additional benefit to trying to formulate this system: It will lead us to really question and explore the nature of cognition itself. I believe we are moving into an age of intelligence — an age where humanity will explore the brain and the mind (the true "final frontier"). In order to explore this frontier, we need a map — and the rating scale I am calling for would provide us with one, for it maps the range of possible capabilities that intelligent systems are capable of.

I’m not as concerned with measuring the degree to which any system is more or less capable of some particular cognitive capability within the space of possible capabilities we map (such as how fast it can do algebra for example, or how well it can recall memories, etc.) — but that is a useful second step. The first step, however, is to simply provide a comprehensive map of all the possible fundamental cognitive behaviors there are — and to make this map as minimal and elegant as we can. Ideally we should be seeking the simplest set of cognitive building blocks from which all cognitive behavior, and therefore all minds, are comprised.

So the question is: Are there in fact "cognitive universals" or universal cognitive capabilities that we can generalize across all possible intelligent systems? This is a fascinating question — although we are human, can we not only imagine, but even prove, that there is a set of basic universal cognitive capabilities that applies everywhere in the universe, or even in other possible universes? This is an exploration that leads into the region where science, pure math, philosophy, and perhaps even spirituality all converge. Ultimately, this map must cover the full range of cognitive capabilities from the most mundane, to what might be (from our perspective) paranormal, or even in the realm of science fiction. Ordinary cognition as well as forms of altered or unhealthy cognition, as well as highly advanced or even what might be said to be enlightened cognition, all have to fit into this model.

Can we develop a system that would apply not just to any form of intelligence on Earth, but even to far-flung intelligent organisms that might exist on other worlds, and that perhaps might exist in dramatically different environments than humans? And how might we develop and test this model?

I would propose that such a system could be developed and tuned by testing it across the range of forms of intelligent life we find on Earth — including social insects (termite colonies, bee hives, etc.), a wide range of other animal species (dogs, birds, chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, etc.), human individuals, and human social organizations (teams, communities, enterprises). Since there are very few examples of artificial intelligence today it would be hard to find suitable systems to test it on, but perhaps there may be a few candidates in the next decade. We should also attempt to imagine forms of intelligence on other planets that might have extremely different sensory capabilities, totally different bodies, and perhaps that exist on very different timescales or spatial scales as well — what would such exotic, alien intelligences be like, and can our model encompass the basic building blocks of their cognition as well?

It will take decades to develop and tune a system such as this, and as we learn more about the brain and the mind, we will continue to add subtlety to the model. But when humanity finally establishes open dialog with an extraterrestrial civilization, perhaps via SETI or some other means of more direct contact, we will reap important rewards. A system such as what I am proposing will provide us with a valuable map for understanding alien cognition, and that may prove to be the key to enabling humanity to engage in successful interactions and relations with alien civilizations as we may inevitably encounter as humanity spreads throughout the galaxy. While some skeptics may claim that we will never encounter intelligent life on other planets, the odds would indicate otherwise. It may take a long time, but eventually it is inevitable that we will cross paths — if they exist at all. Not to be prepared would be irresponsible.

Artificial Stupidity: The Next Big Thing

There has been a lot of hype about artificial intelligence over the years. And recently it seems there has been a resurgence in interest in this topic in the media. But artificial intelligence scares me. And frankly, I don’t need it. My human intelligence is quite good, thank you very much. And as far as trusting computers to make intelligent decisions on my behalf, I’m skeptical to say the least. I don’t need or want artificial intelligence.

No, what I really need is artificial stupidity.

I need software that will automate all the stupid things I presently have to waste far too much of my valuable time on. I need something to do all the stupid tasks — like organizing email, filing documents, organizing folders, remembering things, coordinating schedules, finding things that are of interest, filtering out things that are not of interest, responding to routine messages, re-organizing things, linking things, tracking things, researching prices and deals, and the many other rote information tasks I deal with every day.

The human brain is the result of millions of years of evolution. It’s already the most intelligent thing on this planet. Why are we wasting so much of our brainpower on tasks that don’t require intelligence? The next revolution in software and the Web is not going to be artificial intelligence, it’s going to be creating artificial stupidity: systems that can do a really good job at the stupid stuff, so we have more time to use our intelligence for higher level thinking.

The next wave of software and the Web will be about making software and the Web smarter. But when we say "smarter" we don’t mean smart like a human is smart, we mean "smarter at doing the stupid things that humans aren’t good at." In fact humans are really bad at doing relatively simple, "stupid" things — tasks that don’t require much intelligence at all.

For example, organizing. We are terrible organizers. We are lazy, messy, inconsistent, and we make all kinds of errors by accident. We are terrible at tagging and linking as well, it turns out. We are terrible at coordinating or tracking multiple things at once because we are easily overloaded and we can really only do one thing well at a time. These kinds of tasks are just not what our brains are good at. That’s what computers are for – or should be for at least.

Humans are really good at higher level cognition: complex thinking, decisionmaking, learning, teaching, inventing, expressing, exploring, planning, reasoning, sensemaking, and problem solving — but we are just terrible at managing email, or making sense of the Web. Let’s play to our strengths and use computers to compensate for our weaknesses.

I think it’s time we stop talking about artificial intelligence — which nobody really needs, and fewer will ever trust. Instead we should be working on artificial stupidity. Sometimes the less lofty goals are the ones that turn out to be most useful in the end.

True Knowledge is Cool

The most interesting and exciting new app I’ve seen this month (other than Twine of course!) is a new semantic search engine called True Knowledge. Go to their site and watch their screencast to see what the next generation of search is really going to look like.

True Knowledge is doing something very different from Twine — whereas Twine is about helping individuals, groups and teams manage their private and shared knowledge, True Knowledge is about making a better public knowledgebase on the Web — in a sense they are a better search engine combined with a better Wikipedia. They seem to overlap more with what is being done by natural language search companies like Powerset and companies working on public databases, such as Metaweb and Wikia.

I don’t yet know whether True Knowledge is supporting W3C open-standards for the Semantic Web, but if they do, they will be well-positioned to become a very central service in the next phase of the Web. If they don’t they will just be yet another silo of data — but a very useful one at least. I personally hope they provide SPARQL API access at the very least. Congratulations to the team at True Knowledge! This is a very impressive piece of work.

Radar Networks Announces Twine.com

My company, Radar Networks, has just come out of stealth. We’ve announced what we’ve been working on all these years: It’s called Twine.com. We’re going to be showing Twine publicly for the first time at the Web 2.0 Summit tomorrow. There’s lot’s of press coming out where you can read about what we’re doing in more detail. The team is extremely psyched and we’re all working really hard right now so I’ll be brief for now. I’ll write a lot more about this later.

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Radar Networks Coming Out of Stealth – Friday, October 19

News Flash!

My company, Radar Networks, is coming out of stealth this Friday, October 19, 2007 at the Web 2.0 Summit, in San Francisco. I’ll be speaking on "The Semantic Edge Panel" at 4:10 PM, and publicly showing our Semantic Web online service for the first time. If you are planning to come to Web 2.0, I hope to see you at my panel.

Here’s the official Media Alert below:

               

(PRWEB)
October 15, 2007 — At the Web2.0 Summit on October 19th, Radar
Networks will announce a revolutionary new service that uses the power
of the emerging Semantic Web to enable a smarter way of sharing,
organizing and finding information. Founder and CEO Nova Spivack will
also give the first public preview of Radar’s application, which is one
of the first examples of “Web 3.0” – the next-generation of the Web, in
which the Web begins to function more like a database, and software
grows more intelligent and helpful.

Join Nova as he participates in “The Semantic Edge” panel discussion
with esteemed colleagues including Powerset’s Barney Pell and Metaweb’s
Daniel Hillis, moderated by Tim O’Reilly.

Who:   
Radar Networks Founder and CEO Nova Spivack

When:   
Friday, October 19, 2007
4:10 – 4:55 p.m.
   
Where: 
Web2.0 Summit
Palace Hotel
Grand Ballroom
2 New Montgomery Street
San Francisco,  California  94105
   

Virtual Out of Body Experiences

A very cool experiment in virtual reality has shown it is possible to trick the mind into identifying with a virtual body:

Through these goggles, the volunteers could see a camera
view of their own back – a three-dimensional "virtual own body" that
appeared to be standing in front of them.

When the researchers stroked the back of the volunteer
with a pen, the volunteer could see their virtual back being stroked
either simultaneously or with a time lag.

The volunteers reported that the sensation seemed to be
caused by the pen on their virtual back, rather than their real back,
making them feel as if the virtual body was their own rather than a
hologram.

Volunteers

Even when the camera was switched to film the back of a
mannequin being stroked rather than their own back, the volunteers
still reported feeling as if the virtual mannequin body was their own.

And when the researchers switched off the goggles,
guided the volunteers back a few paces, and then asked them to walk
back to where they had been standing, the volunteers overshot the
target, returning nearer to the position of their "virtual self".

This has implications for next-generation video games and virtual reality. It also has interesting implications for consciousness studies in general.

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Scientist Says "Never in Our Imagination Could This Happen." Famous Last Words?

Whenever a scientist says something like, don’t worry our new experiment could never get out of the lab, or don’t worry the miniature black hole we are going to generate couldn’t possibly swallow up the entire planet, I tend to get a little worried. The problem is that just about every time a scientist has said something is patently absurd, totally impossible or could never ever happen, it usually turns out that in fact it isn’t as impossible as they thought. Now here’s a new article about scientists creating new artificial lifeforms, based on new genetic building blocks — and once again there’s one of those statements. I’m guessing that this means that in about 10 years some synthetic life form is going to be found to have done the impossible and escaped from the lab — perhaps into our food supply, or maybe into our environment. Don’t get me wrong — I’m in favor of this kind of research into new frontiers. I just don’t think anyone can guarantee it won’t escape from the lab.

Plans for a Lunar Ark to Save Humanity

Researchers at the International Space University (ISU), of which I am an alumnus, are proposing an interesting initiative to build an ark on the moon to preserve human civilization and biodiversity, and the Internet, in the event of a catastrophe on earth, such as a comet impact, nuclear war, etc. This project is similar to what I proposed in my Genesis Project posting in 2003.

Humans are just beginning to send trinkets of technology and culture
into space. NASA’s recently launched Phoenix Mars Lander, for example,
carries a mini-disc inscribed with stories, art, and music about Mars.

The Phoenix lander is a "precursor mission" in a decades-long
project to transplant the essentials of humanity onto the moon and
eventually Mars. (See a photo gallery about the Phoenix mission.)

The International Space University team is now on a more ambitious
mission: to start building a "lunar biological and historical archive,"
initially through robotic landings on the moon.

Laying the foundation for "rebuilding the terrestrial Internet,
plus an Earth-moon extension of it, should be a priority," Burke said.

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Knowledge Networking

I’ve been thinking for several years about Knowledge Networking. It’s not a term I invented, it’s been floating around as a meme for at least a decade or two. But recently it has started to resurface in my own work.

So what is a knowledge network? I define a knowledge network as a form of collective intelligence in which a network of people (two or more people connected by social-communication relationships) creates, organizes, and uses a collective body of knowledge. The key here is that a knowledge network is not merely a site where a group of people work on a body of information together (such as the wikipedia), it’s also a social network — there is an explicit representation of a social relationship within it. So it’s more like a social network than for example a discussion forum or a wiki.

I would go so far as to say that knowledge networks are the third-generation of social software. (Note this is based in-part on ideas that emerged in conversations I have had with Peter Rip, so this also his idea):

  • First-generation social apps were about communication (eg.
    messaging such as Email, discussion boards, chat rooms, and IM)
  • Second-generation social apps were about people and content (eg. Social networks, social media sharing, user-generated content)
  • Third-generation social apps are about relationships and knowledge  (eg. Wikis, referral networks, question and answer systems, social recommendation systems, vertical knowledge and expertise portals, social mashup apps, and coming soon, what we’re building at Radar Networks)

Just some thoughts on a Saturday morning…