"There's been a culture war between librarians and computer scientists," Berkeley professor Peter Lyman says. And the war is over, he adds. "Google won."
This points the way to one of the next big leaps for search engines: finding meaning in the way a single person searches the Web. In other words, the search engines will study the user's queries and Web habits and, over time, personalize all future searches. Right now, Google and the other search engines don't really know their users.
Paul Saffo isn't really interested in the stuff that most people look for when they do a Web search. He's one of the premier futurists of Silicon Valley and fondly recalls the days, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the pre-Web era, when the Internet was the reserve of the technological elite who posted their brilliant thoughts on electronic bulletin boards. Now, everyone from about third grade up has an e-mail address and loiters around the Web as though it's the corner 7-Eleven. The results of a Web search reflect the tastes of a broad swath of ordinary Americans who in some cases are still wearing short pants.
"The more people get on the Web, the more the Web becomes the vaster wasteland that is the successor to the vast wasteland of television. I don't care what the majority of people are looking at, because the majority of people are really boring," Saffo says.
"The field is called user modeling," says Dan Gruhl of IBM. "It's all about computers watching interactions with people to try to understand their interests and something about them."
Imagine a version of Google that's got a bit of TiVo in it: It doesn't require you to pose a query. It already knows! It's one step ahead of you. It has learned your habits and thought processes and interests. It's your secretary, your colleague, your counselor, your own graduate student doing research for which you'll get all the credit.
"I don't think anyone wants a search engine," says Seth Godin. "I think people want a find engine."
Find, and do. Solve problems. Make it so.
Humans have limited powers of attention. Software, says Horvitz, "needs to be endowed with the kind of common courtesies we'd expect from a well-mannered colleague."
What everyone wants is a reasonable, discreet intelligent agent, like an English butler. It should be one that can get things accomplished, to take the extra steps even without being prompted.
Perhaps this digital self could become a commodity, something marketable. Imagine that you have to write a paper for a class about the future of search engines. You don't want to use your own lame, broken-down, distracted, gummed-up-with-stupid-stuff virtual secretary to do your research. You want to download Bill Gates's intelligent agent, or Paul Saffo's, or Sergey Brin's, to help you ask smarter questions and find the best answers. ("Search For Tomorrow", but you've now seen all its original parts)