Search Engines for the Physical World: The Future of Search Technology in an Increasingly Transparent World
Consider the following scenario.
In 2035 a heinous criminal escapes in the city of Dallas, Texas and the local police department acquires a court order to conduct a thorough search of the metro area. Within 15 minutes a fleet of twelve surveillance drones is deployed to begin an ultra high-res flyover.
Because of exponential growth of processing power, storage, and bandwidth, each drone is capable of scanning with micro particle-level resolution from their 10,000-foot vantage point, seeing through walls made of concrete and steel, identifying every individual, object, animal, insect, and even a few airborne virus along the way.
These drones are voracious data gathering machines, transmitting super-dense information streams to ground stations at the rate of over one petabyte a minute for final processing.
Within 30 minutes the dangerous criminal is located and a team is sent out to apprehend him. At the same time over 6,000 other people, objects, and situations are red-flagged for further investigation, each requiring judicial review before further action can be taken.
Any matters that pose an immediate danger to public health take top priority. People with both unknown and highly contagious diseases are sent to a medical team for further review. Location of dangerous insects, animals, tripping hazards, unstable objects, and failing infrastructure are referred to City departments best equipped to handle them.
The vast majority of red-flagged issues are easily dealt with, posing little argument over whether local government is overstepping its authority.
However, there are also more than a few matters not so easily resolved. Teenage runaways, domestic violence, in-home vandalism, possession of stolen goods, and an assortment of minor legal violations all fall into a gray area where further action may or may not be warranted.
First, is this a realistic scenario? And second, is this the kind of world we want to live in?
Rethinking Our Search Perspective
Benoit Mandelbrot, a Polish mathematician who lived from 1924-2010, was best known as the “father of fractal geometry.” His impressive resume included stints as the Sterling Professor of Mathematical Sciences, Emeritus at Yale University; IBM Fellow at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center; and Battelle Fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
At one point in his career, Mandelbrot was asked the simple question, “What’s the distance around a lake?”
He responded by saying, “It depends on your perspective,” and went on to explain.
Viewing a lake from 100,000 feet, the lake has a very defined distance, easily measurable. As the altitude decreases, an observer will begin to take note of bays, inlets, and other shoreline formations making the distance around the lake longer.
Moving closer an observer will begin to notice that the shoreline is filled with rocks and trees, and nearing the ground, things like pebbles, plants, and dirt clumps come into view, making the length still longer.
Even resting on the ground, the journey is not over. Once individual grains of sand and pieces of debris become visible, we move into microscopic particles where the distance involves measuring around individual atoms and molecules.
Because of this growing level of detail, the distance around a lake approaches infinity.
The Mandelbrot perspective has far reaching implications. As we develop search engines for super tiny particles, we will also redefine our physical world in countless other ways.
Next Generation Search Tools
Online search technology has framed much of our thinking around our ability to find things. In general, if it’s not digital and online, it’s not findable.
However tools like Google Glass and flying drones add many more dimensions to existing search algorithms.
In the near-term future most advances will be focused on furthering our understanding of the inquiry-results relationship, making it more personal so our inquiries don’t need to be so exacting and precise to get the answers we’re looking for. According to Google Senior VP and Fellow Amit Singhal:
- Search will become far more personal, and Google will be able to know what you’re looking for based on who you are.
- Search engines will not only find, but interpret what they find by generating their own algorithms.
- Advances in artificial intelligence and natural language understanding will result in deeper descriptions and understanding of web pages.
- Answers, not links, will become more prevalent.
- Search will do things, rather than simply suggest things.
- Our digital lives will be combined into one searchable platform.
Google Glass Search
Google Glass will begin to radically change search technology, presenting visual overlays that place the location of objects within your field of view. This will take us far beyond finding restaurants on Yelp or making GPS directions more understandable.
Permanent buildings, structures, roads, and geographical formations will create something akin to a wireframe on which all other data will be layered.
If we search for lost objects in our home or office, such as lost keys, wallet, or book, search results will be readily available to us individually based on what Glass recorded from previous house-scans.
Even missing child requests like, “Where’s Mikey?” will enable us to scan surrounding neighborhoods using a variety of security camera and smartphone inputs to yield personalized results for known family members.
However, systems like this will have built-in “stalker preventers” to limit unwanted attention by paparazzi, nosey bloggers, and other unwanted stalkers. Certainly these won’t be easy limits to define, but they will be necessary restrictions for future living.
Spidering the Physical World with Drones
The opening scenario for this article was intended to present a realistic vision of the future where flying drones replace web crawlers as the data-gathering tools of choice for searching our physical surroundings. And yes, this will be very controversial.
Keep in mind that virtually nothing on the Internet was findable until web crawlers made it so. Similarly, findabilty in the physical world will take a quantum leap forward once we unleash the drone equivalent of web crawlers to spider our physical surroundings.
Many uses for this technology, however, won’t be controversial. They will instead be welcomed with open arms. Here are a few examples:
- Search and rescue in mountains, oceans, deserts, and remote areas.
- Crop scans by farmers to assess level of weed, fungus, disease, or insect infestation.
- Forest scans by State Forestry Departs to research changes in plant and animal activity.
- Ocean scans to assess impact of fishing activity, placing designated “over-fished” areas off limits for a designated recovery period.
- Disease trackers to scan for early-stage contagions, warning health officials of possible outbreaks.
- Scanning infrastructure like bridges, roads, and tunnels for failure points and necessary repairs.
In much the same way we find ourselves wrestling with online privacy issues today, we will be wrestling with far more complex privacy issues in the future.
Search technology will become far more sophisticated in the future. Soon we will be able to search on a variety of attributes like smells, tastes, harmonic vibration, texture, specific gravity, and barometric pressure.
Eventually, search engines will have the capability of finding virtually anything in either the digital or physical world.
Each step we take in this direction will be viewed as further intrusion on the sacred ground of privacy, and as a result, a host of masking and cloaking technologies will begin to appear on the market.
Signal jammers, light wave disrupters, and other forms of digital camouflaging will serve as a short-term substitute for public policy failures.
Living in a super transparent society brings with it and equal number of positive and negative aspects, but we won’t know where to draw the line on policy matters until we’ve experienced it for ourselves.
In the process we will effectively be rewriting the rules for humanity – our value systems, our expectations, and all the synaptic firings that define us as humans. Can we possibly be who we think we should be?
About the author:
Thomas Frey is the innovation editor of THE FUTURIST magazine. His Web site is Futuristspeaker.com
Essays and comments posted in World Future Society and THE FUTURIST magazine blog portion of this site are the intellectual property of the authors, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Future Society takes no stand on what the future will or should be like.
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