Jack Uldrich
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Engines of Change: Searching Outside the Box

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(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, 20/20 Vision: 20 Trends Which Will Transform Business in the Coming Decade, that I am writing with the able assistance of fellow futurist Simon Anderson, host of www.futur1st.com. This chapter covers the search engine of the future.)

For three days in February, 2011, “Watson,” an IBM supercomputer battled the game show Jeopardy’s top two all-time winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in a nationally televised contest pitting man against machine. The machine won. In addition to highlighting the amazing processing speed of computers as well as the growing sophistication of algorithms, the contest yielded an intriguing but incomplete glance into the future of computer search.

On his response to the final question, when it was clear he was going to lose, Jennings scribbled the words, “I for one welcome our new computer overloads” below his answer. Although the statement may have been intended to be comical, many people will, in fact, come to welcome the search engine of the future because it will be able to do so much more than access vast reams of digital content to answer obscure trivia questions. It will understand the precise context, location and needs of the individual making the query and scan vast databases of print, audio and video to provide answers to nuanced questions. Indeed, it will even be able to anticipate future needs. To better understand the search engine of tomorrow let’s take a peak in on the family of Omar and Camille, two professionals living in the Washington, DC area.

Omar serves as legal counsel to the chairwoman of Senate Energy Committee, and his wife, Camille, a native of Lyon, France, is an architect specializing in biomimicry design. She works for a construction firm dedicated to building high security diplomatic buildings that also incorporate natural elements.

Let’s begin our visit on a typical morning as the family is just beginning to prepare for their day. Calibrated to a frequency only he can hear, Omar’s alarm wakes him and he heads to the bathroom. After closing the door, an electronic display embedded in the bathroom mirror shows him a prioritized list of all news items, emails and messages he has received since the previous evening. The list was created by his “personal assistant”–or PA–a complex software package that has progressively learned Omar’s personal habits and preferences by monitoring his actions (including his purchases and social network posts) over the past five years. The program, which Omar named “Rosie” (after a robotic cartoon character from his youth), lives in the cloud and seamlessly transfers to whichever platform will best serve Omar. It also knows what news items and messages he’ll find most important; whom he is likely to respond to first (and those he routinely ignores); when he is amenable to receiving a targeted advertisement; and can identify and draw his attention to important details of people in his social network–such as birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones.

The top item on Omar’s list this morning is a story translated from a website dedicated to tracking cold fusion developments in India. Next on the list is a story from National Public Radio covering the previous day’s committee hearings that focused on the status of cold fusion research. This is followed by a series of links to videos of interviews with Democrats, Republicans, independents and industry representatives regarding yesterday’s testimony.

Omar first selects the story from NPR because he can listen to it while he showers. Next, he selects the video clip of the chairwoman on Oprah Winfrey’s new political network because he believes it is the least polarized of the media outlets and offers the most insightful review of the hearing. Omar watches a clip of the interview on the display on his fog-free, digitally integrated mirror while shaving.

After dressing, Omar proceeds downstairs. His PA, Rosie, tells him the kitchen contains all of the ingredients necessary to make Camille’s favorite breakfast, a piperade omelet and lyonnaise potatoes. It also informs him his wife has just woken up and he shouldn’t start preparing her breakfast quite yet. Omar unfolds his flexible tablet and uses the free time to read a comprehensive sampling of translated stories from Brazilian, German and Chinese press on yesterday’s hearing.

While getting ready, Camille glances at a similar list of prioritized items that her PA–whom she refers to as Chandler–has created. She, however, ignores the list and pulls up an old video lecture she asked her PA to locate the evening before. Hand gesturing for the video to play, a clip from an old graduate school lecture by her favorite professor pops up on screen and he can be seen discussing the beauty and complexity of conch shells. Chandler suddenly interrupts the video with a message that there is a small window of time in which she can discuss the final design feature for the new Kurdistan embassy with her colleagues in Shanghai and Stockholm. Given the time zone differences, Camille knows it’s rare that all of them are available at the same time and immediately approves the request. It takes less than a minute for Chandler to coordinate with her colleagues’ PA’s and arrange a three-way conference call.

Camille shows her colleagues a snippet from her old professor’s lecture and displays (via a secure intra-company portal) a three-dimensional model of spiral staircase in the lobby of the embassy. Its structure is modeled on a conch seashell. “It’s elegant, incredibly sturdy and can be manufactured with sustainable materials,” says Camille. Her colleagues agree that it is a perfect fit for the embassy.

It also happened to be the last design component needed to finish the building plans. To celebrate the completion of the project, Chandler recommends sending a bouquet of stargazer lilies to her colleague in Shanghai and a bottle of Japanese sake to the one in Stockholm. Camille is confident they will both love the gifts because Chandler—after scanning her colleagues’ social networks’ profiles–listed a series of gifts they might enjoy. The two items she chose had a confidence ranking of 97 percent and Camille has never had a bad experience with an item rated 95 percent or above. She then asks Chandler to recommend a French wine her old professor might enjoy. Almost before she finishes asking, Chandler has recommended a bottle of 2006 Chevalier-Montrachet. Camille then approves the three gifts, confident the items will be shipped within the hour, her bank account correctly debited and her tax records will reflect that the three purchases were legitimate business expenses.

The quick resolution of her work allows Camille to join her husband for a relaxing breakfast. She enjoys and appreciates that Omar always knows to what to make for her, but she is aware this is as much due to Rosie’s memory as her husband’s. Camille then tells Omar she intends to modify their investment portfolio. Although investing is still subject to the complexities of the global marketplace, Chandler has greatly reduced the risk, this time by searching a wide variety of informational sources, including trade publications, financial journals and long-range weather forecasts. With the freshly gathered information, he estimates there is 78 percent probability drought conditions in Russia and Australia are likely to continue into next year. Based on Chandler’s suggestion, Camille tells her husband she would like to sell some stock and put a long-term option on wheat. Omar just shrugs. He’s comfortable leaving the investment decisions to Camille–and Chandler.

By the time their portfolio has been reconfigured, Benton and Madison, Omar and Camille’s two children, have joined them at the breakfast table. The ensuing conversation is remarkably stress-free because everyone’s calendar is synched and Madison’s PA has reminded her she needs to pack her clarinet for music class and her shin-guards for soccer practice, and Benton’s PA has noted he still needs to post the history project that is due today. The PA also sent a note to his dad reminding him not to pack a peanut butter sandwich because Benton will be sitting at the table with a classmate who has a peanut allergy.

The fluid and almost imperceptible schedule coordination allows the family to concentrate on planning their upcoming trip to New York City over the Thanksgiving holiday. This activity is not so stress-free as everyone’s PA has pulled up a personalized list of “things-to-do.” Camille’s agenda is more focused on peer-based recommendations because it knows she will pay greater attention to what friends suggest she do in the Big Apple. Omar’s list is the complete opposite and concentrates on more on the opinions of experts. The first problem arises when they begin comparing restaurants to visit while in Manhattan.

The situation escalates as Madison and Benton’s PA’s begin feeding them video suggestions of fun things other children their ages have enjoyed while visiting New York City. The daughter’s PA, for example, knows she is interested in theater, while her brother’s PA pulls up hotels that will accommodate Harry, the family’s beagle since he loves to bring the dog on their vacations.

In a matter of minutes most of the major issues are resolved as Rosie (the family’s de facto mediator in such situations) is able to classify and prioritize all the issues. Rosie does this by laying out the information and decision points in a visual manner that allows each family member to better understand the various trade-offs. Omar was most concerned with keeping the trip within the family budget and Rosie presented him with an infographic showing him that while the train was more expensive than flying, the time they would save by arriving directly at Penn Station would more than compensate for the higher cost of the train. Noting the perplexed look on his face, an algorithm in Rosie responded by saying, “Remember, time is money. The train will save your family an estimated total of 9 hours and 32 minutes.”

Camille was able to prevail on most of her restaurant selections for dinner because Rosie reminded Omar that he didn’t enjoy two of the past three restaurants the New York Times top restaurant critic had selected. “I keep telling you,” replied Camille in a satisfied and smug tone, “the future of search is a conversation with people you know and trust … not the so-called experts.”

The kids were less happy because Rosie recommended keeping Harry at home. The majority of pet-friendly rooms in New York had already been reserved and the additional price the family would have had to pay was prohibitive. Rosie instead made a tentative reservation for Harry at the Dog Heaven, the local kennel, because only two spots remained over the Thanksgiving Holiday. Knowing it required his approval before paying for the transaction, Rosie prompted Omar to confirm the reservation. “The last spot was about to be taken,” the PA responded as a matter of explaining why it had made the original decision without any prompting from Omar. To appease the children, Rosie recommended using the savings to purchase four tickets to Broadway’s latest hit show, “Tron: Off The Grid.” It knew that both parents enjoyed the original 1982 movie and the two kids loved the 2010 remake.

With all the hard decisions for the day made before 8am, Omar and Camille got their kids on the bus early (because they were alerted it was arriving two minutes ahead of schedule) and then lamented what the advancements in search were doing to their kid’s minds. “I worry their PA’s are doing all of their thinking for them,” said Camille. Omar nodded in agreement.

Not recognizing the irony, the two then tried to use Chandler to book a two-week summer vacation in northern Vermont. To gain a competitive advantage in the commercial marketplace, a small, rustic resort had recently created an old-fashioned “digital-free” retreat. The number of people wishing to escape the conveniences of modern technology had exceeded the resort owner’s wildest expectations and openings were limited. Alas, because the resort didn’t accept reservations from electronic personal assistants, Omar had to call them himself. After being placed on a five-minute hold–which seemed like an eternity–Omar nervously booked a reservation for his family.

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