Friday, March 16, 2007

Pulling Answers from Thin Air

Life is too short. There are far too many interesting things on this Earth. But unless there is a breakthrough in anti-aging science, the accumulated knowledge stored in my brain will soon disappear without a trace. The trace minerals of my body will be pushing up the daisies. They, in turn, will also die, dry up and wither away. I will be a wisp of dust, blowing in the wind.

A depressing thought? Not really. And it doesn't stop me from wanting to learn more. I even want to cram more information into the old lemon than what I am currently able to do.

For instance, I like to travel and I want to learn things about the region I am travelling through. The information should be right there, where I am, when I want it. Stored at that very spot, easily accessible. I should also be able to add information easily.

GPS-enabled mobile phones or smart-phones could be used for automatically browsing the information simply by passing by a location. If your preferences match the contents of the information and the rating is high enough, you will be alerted. If a lot of people easily could add information using their mobile phones, the amount of information would grow quickly.

And why not pose questions?

- That's a strange looking flower!

I reach for my camera phone, take a snapshot of the flower and send the image away along with some questions.

A minute later I get the answer:

"That's a daisy that looks a little unususal because the petals have started to close. It normally doesn't grow in this region, so it is an interesting find. The plants of this family are distinguished by having composite flowerheads consisting of numerous disk florets, ray florets, or both; they include many weeds (dandelions, thistles, ragworts) and garden flowers (asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, marigolds). The origin of the name is Old English "dæges ēage" [day's eye]. Why "Days Eye" you may ask? Because the flower opens in the morning and closes at night.

Thanks for submitting this info. Our distribution database is now updated."

Is this an answer from a dedicated team of experts? Or is it a fully automated system using image recognition? Maybe it is based on a service similar to Yahoo Answers or the retired Google Answers - a collaborative network of ordinary people volunteering information in areas they have expertise, in this case augmented in such a way that questions can be posed to the thin air, hanging there, waiting for a comment or an answer, perhaps from someone who live in the region or whisked away to someone who has registered as an expert or caretaker of that area? You could have localized discussions, notices, instructions, regulations appear when you get close enough, or when you enter a designated area.

- Wake up! Stop dreaming. Image recognition will never be able to handle all the information we would like to throw at it. And Google would never bother with implementing something like this.

No? If you have a look at what the good people at Neven Vision have been working on, it becomes apparent that image analysis actually have come a long way and may very well be able to handle much of this. They are developing face and object recognition software, and if you look at some of their patents, you will see that they already have patents that covers exactly these kinds of applications where you use a mobile phone to capture an image that is sent to a server which looks up information about what was captured.

- Sure, some company has patented this idea. What is the big deal?

I forgot to mention that Google has acquired Neven Vision.

It boggles the mind
when you think about the possibilities that exists for Google, using this kind of technology.

- Alright. I'll admit it boggled my mind. But what about this object lookup and identification system you are talking about?

Why not put it all together in an hierarchy? Feed the image to an automated image recognition system, and if that fails, the query goes to the collaborative network of experts à la Google Answers. No reply there? Well, then it goes on to a team of highly qualified experts.

Now, finally, these experts can sit back and relax in their office. They will be connected to millions of field assistants that collect field data for them. New species of flora and fauna might even be discovered while they sit and munch away at a pizza.

If everyone leaves a trail of information wherever they go, if your blog is geo-located, your pictures and movies geo-tagged, if you can share and recieve information about the place you live – this becomes a way of learning about your environment, your history, your country and the natural world. It may even help people rediscover the green stuff that surrounds our cities. (I think it is called nature).

"Power. Sex. Violence. Shiny cars. Jerry Springer."

There may be a danger in the urbanization and in the preoccupation of popular culture with subjects that are devoid of real values besides shock value and simple titillation. The desire to learn about and understand the natural world we live in is being replaced by a desire to fulfill simple urges, to get quick emotional fixes, regardless of consequences. Power. Sex. Violence. Shiny cars. Jerry Springer.

In the long run, nature; the great outdoors, is going to be devalued. We will not form any emotional attachments to it, it will not be an important part of our lives.

If you are able to experience a sense of wonder or awe when you stand in the middle of a national park – when you realize the interconnectedness of all things around you; the connections and dependencies, both local and through time, that has shaped this – then you also realize how fragile it is. If we no longer value these things and protect them, they will soon be gone forever.

Maybe we are willing to replace the rainforests of the world with palm oil plantations in order get palm oil for our potato chips, but we should at least be aware of that this is what is happening. How are we going to find out that indigenous people, like the Penans on Borneo, are being squeezed out of existence by the commercial interests we are generating ourselves by sitting in front of the TV, munching away at a bag of potato chips?

Perhaps it is time to rediscover the world we share, to bring the social networking sites out from the Internet and into the real world and put some tools for learning and discovery into the hands of our children?

What if the Penans had the very same tools? The next time your child fires up Google Earth, a connection between two very different worlds may be made, and the words of the Penan Chief Along Sega

"But we are dying.... Of this we can be sure."

would reach someone who cares.

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