The next generation of search technology

9th May 2013 | 04:34

The next generation of search technology

With billions of information on the internet, search will need to keep evolving to meet our needs.

It's hard to believe, but the modern web search engine will be 20 years old this year.

While the software, algorithms and pure smarts underpinning search services have evolved dramatically over the years, what hasn't significantly altered is the way we use search tools.

The established 'seek and ye shall find' request-and-response ritual essentially remains unchanged from two decades ago.

That was the case up until now. In line with the rise of mobile computing, a new range of search technologies are starting to be able to give us answers to questions we haven't even asked yet.

These apps are learning to predict what we want to know, based on our content and context, our location and habits.

While it might sound like science fiction, it's actually very real, but it's also important to keep our expectations in check.

If it took conventional searching 20 years to get to the point where it is today, it's unrealistic to expect services like Google Now to be instantly mature and cognisant of exactly what you want straight out of the box.

The best example of this is the saga of Siri.

Apple's famous digital assistant wowed the tech world when it was unveiled at the launch of the iPhone 4S in 2011, but as the gimmick of asking your phone silly questions wore off, many commentators criticised the less-than-completely perfect nature of Siri's capabilities, as though the world's first pocketable intelligence should ship without shortcomings.

Instead, we should realistically expect a healthy amount of hiccups in these first and second-gen offerings, as predictive, social and location-aware technologies slowly (but fundamentally) reinvent the ways we discover relevant information about the world around us — and all with no searching required.

Google Now

Google Now is unmistakably at the forefront of the next-generation search space, although Siri likely enjoys better popular recognition due to all the media coverage it's garnered.

Google Now was introduced last year for Android smartphones and tablets as part of Google's regular Search app (but in order to use the Google Now-specific features you'll need a device running at least Android 4.1 aka Jelly Bean).

And just last week, Google made it available for iOS also via the Google Search app.

To use Google Now in Android, you just start the Google Search app or swipe up from the bottom of your screen.

In addition to being presented with the standard Search bar at the top of the display, you'll see a series of 'cards' underneath that try to predict information which will be of use to you based on your location, the time of day and what you might have coming up next.

It also has a voice recognition feature to carry out a voice search much like Apple's Siri.

The range of Google Now cards is really quite huge and includes: an activity summary of distances travelled; calendar-based events like birthdays, meetings and appointments; flight, hotel and restaurant bookings sourced from your Gmail; photo spots, places of interest and movie sessions playing nearby; public alerts and news updates; plus sports, stock, weather and commute/traffic information.

All of this is fed to you automatically within the app, with no special input from you required to call it up.

Google Now Android screenshot

The killer feature of Google Now is it learns how to help you better the more you use Google services, and it's totally automatic once you've turned it on.

The drawback is as yet it's only available on a limited selection of Android handsets, although this might change in the future — and it's even been rumoured that Google Now could be coming to Google TV and Chrome on the desktop.

What is certain is that Google Now, which ties deeply into Google's broad network of consumer web products, has an ambitious future ahead of it.

AI guru Ray Kurzweil, who recently joined the company as Director of Engineering, has referred to the future of search engines as a 'cybernetic friend' who is aware of your particular interests and curiosities (well in advance of you), "And, it can then be canvassing all the new information that comes out in the world every minute and then bring things to your attention without you asking about them."

Siri

Siri, which is currently available in Beta on select iPhones, iPads and iPod touches, is perhaps not quite as ambitious as Google Now, but it's still a landmark app that popularised the notion of the contemporary intelligent search assistant.

And, when used in conjunction with the iPhone's built-in location-based features, Siri approaches a kind of digital pseudo-awareness that can be quite helpful in the right circumstances.

You can use Siri to make calls, find places, seek directions, access your calendar to make appointments and set reminders, use social media like Facebook and Twitter, locate your friends (via Find My Friends), play music, open apps and more.

If Siri can't natively help with your query (by interpreting your meaning), it will default to a standard web search.

Screenshot of Siri on iPhone 5

Siri can be easily programmed with your personal info (where you live, where you work, which contacts are your family members and so on) to make using it more natural and useful, and to assist with location-based reminders.

Apple might have gone relatively quiet on Siri in recent times, but it's expected that the software could receive a significant new lease on life under the leadership of Eddy Cue, the company's Senior VP of Internet Software and Services, who recently took over from the deposed former iOS chief Scott Forstall (after the Apple Maps debacle exposed the company to widespread criticism and ridicule).

Added perk — Siri is as yet the only intelligent search service that comes bundled with something resembling a sense of humour. Check out this site — shitthatsirisays.tumblr.com.

Facebook Graph Search

Facebook's new Graph Search is the company's long-awaited entrance into the search space. However, unlike what many tech watchers expected (like say, a social-supported web search engine designed to take on competitors such as Google), Graph Search isn't a traditional search engine used to find information on the web.

Instead, Graph Search offers a new internally focused way of discovering highly specific social information on Facebook via customisable searches of your own personal network.

Whereas most of the information Facebook contains about users and their circles (what the company calls the Graph) has largely only been accessible via browsing and direct navigation up until now, Graph Search adds a powerful new search capacity that lets you filter though the huge amounts of disparate social data most of us now have access to on the service.

Variable search phrases enable you to easily distil specific information that would have been almost impossible to gather together before.

Facebook provides some examples of the kinds of searches now possible on the service via Graph Search, which is currently limited to finding people, photos, places and interests.

  • People from my hometown who like hiking
  • Friends of friends who have been to Yosemite National Park
  • People who like things I like
  • People who like tennis and live nearby
  • Photos I like
  • Photos of my family
  • Photos of my friends before 1999
  • Photos of my friends taken in New York
  • Restaurants in San Francisco
  • Tourist attractions in Italy visited by my friends
  • Countries my friends have visited
  • Music my friends like
  • Movies liked by people who like movies I like
  • Languages my friends speak

The first release of Graph Search is in a limited English (US) Beta for now, but Facebook is working towards an international, multi-language release and expanding the search core to other areas beyond people, photos, places and interests.

If you want to be added to the waiting list for updates and to get on Graph Search to try it out as soon as possible, you can sign up at www.facebook.com/graphsearch.

View of Facebook Graph

GROKR

Grokr is clearly modelled on Google's service but offers one key difference. Whereas Google Now pulls in the information it knows about you directly from Google's own products (Gmail, Calendar etc.), Grokr's intuitive abilities instead rely on data you enable it to access from other online properties (of which there are approximately 50, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) in addition to plotting your whereabouts via GPS and location services.

In keeping with its inspiration being heavily drawn from Google Now, Grokr's predictive portfolio of information and recommendations relevant to you is similarly broad, with Grokr 'tiles' replacing Google Now's 'cards'.

The commute tile keeps you abreast of traffic conditions and estimated travel times based on your destination and commute patterns; the location tile keeps you informed about things around you like businesses, public events, restaurants and so forth; plus there's a weather tile, sports, and a number of news functions related to news tailored to you, trending items and major headlines.

If you don't like the kinds of updates you're receiving, you can refine your feeds.

There have been a huge number of uninspired and mostly forgettable Siri clones for both iOS and Android in the past year or so, but this relatively new app (released last December) looks to hold considerable potential.

MindMeld

Powered by Nuance's Dragon voice-recognition software, the soon-to-launch MindMeld is an innovative-looking group chat app for iPad — kind of like Skype — but with a unique twist: MindMeld 'listens' to the conversations you're having with friends and in turn displays an interactive Pinterest-style board of related information on your tablet.

According to its makers, Expect Labs, MindMeld can understand what people in the call are talking about and identify key conversational topics.

From there, the software automatically brings up related pictures, videos, articles and information from the web and displays them on your tablet.

If you see something on the screen that's particularly relevant (for example, the location of a restaurant you've been discussing or a particular news story you want your friend to see), you can simply swipe it to share with others in the chat or on social networks.

While the idea of a silent, HAL-like eavesdropper might seem a bit creepy at first, it's really no different to the sort of automatic text scraping Gmail has been doing to our private email correspondence for close to a decade (used to generate relevant advertising, which may also end up being the case here).

All up, MindMeld is looking very Star Trek — including the name, borrowed from a certain Vulcan's penetrating telepathy technique.

An Android version is said to be in the works, and video chat (in addition to just voice chat) is also expected to be incorporated in the future.

Izik

Izik is another newcomer and is the first touch-friendly search engine created specifically for tablets.

Izik (a reference to Isaac Newton) displays information in rows that can be swiped easily with your thumbs from left to right and vice versa.

This is a much more user-friendly way of navigating a search engine when your hands are holding up a tablet.

But Izik is trying to be more than a touch-friendly search engine. When designing Izik, its developers, US-based Blekko (who run the blekko search engine that focuses on delivering spam-free results), also took into account how people use search on tablets.

It discovered the obvious: that search engines on desktop computers tend to be used for work and on tablets for fun and exploration, so it's tailored its tablet search engine to deliver a more image-rich layout which also allows for easier discovery of related content.

In fact, Izik is really a cross between a search engine and a tablet magazine, with each query generating its own set of categories that you can follow.

So, for instance, search 'Kylie Minogue' and the results are broken up into various categories than range from 'Latest news' to 'Gossip' and 'Lyrics'.

Izik is available as an app for iPad and Android tablets.

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