Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Exploring the complex way in which “information” is integral to our lives. Three of Silicon Valley’s deepest thinkers explore the exciting and anxiety-provoking future of information.
- Abdur Chowdhury Chief Scientist, Twitter (2008-2011)
- Mary Czerwinski Research Area Manager, Visualization and Interaction (VIBE) Research Group, Microsoft (aka: Microsoft's Chief of Human-Computer Interaction Research)
- Dan Russell Senior Research Scientist, Search Quality & User Happiness, Google (aka: Google's Director of User Happiness)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Information is a commodity. It has always been. Information is knowledge, and knowledge, though appreciated, wasn't always shared with everyone. For a long time, information was almost a sacred thing. The world valued it. It was written down by a chosen few bound between leather pages, placed on stacks at libraries, behind locked doors sometimes, and only a select group could access it at a time. My, how times have changed.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe Internet era has made information ubiquitous. Joining us today are three big thinkers out in Silicon Valley. Others look to them to see what the future of information technology may bring. These folks are not only leaders in their field. They're also leaders in anticipating the future and forecasting the change that's coming. We're happy to have them in studio. Dan Russell is a research scientist at Google. He's often called Google's director of user happiness since he leads efforts to improve the effectiveness of Web searching. Dan Russell, good to have you here.
MR. DAN RUSSELLIt's good to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Mary Czerwinski, official title, research area manager of Microsoft's Visualization and Interaction Research Group, but, basically, it means she heads America's largest human computer interaction laboratory. Mary Czerwinski, thank you for joining us.
MS. MARY CZERWINSKIThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Abdur Chowdhury. He was the chief scientist at Twitter before he left last month. His work focuses on search recommendations and extracting the signal from the noise. Thank you so much for joining us, Abdur Chowdhury.
MR. ABDUR CHOWDHURYThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, Join the conversation there. We thought we'd start with something people are calling the Nym Wars. For those who haven't heard about it, it's the question of whether you can be anonymous on the Internet or whether you need to be a real person.
NNAMDISome of you may have been reading about, tweeting about best-selling author Salman Rushdie and how he was furious at Facebook because it deactivated his account, demanding proof of his identity because it says on his passport that his name is Ahmed Rushdie, even though no one has ever called him that. However, he has now declared victory because that's been corrected after he went on Twitter and ranted about it for a while.
NNAMDIWhere do each of you come down on the future of anonymity on the Web, starting with you, Dan Russell?
RUSSELLThe future of anonymity -- you know, it's one of these battles that's going to be fought for a long time. You want to be anonymous. You just don't publish. You just don't participate. You just stay off the grid in a sense. It's -- for us at Google, it's one of these issues where -- with things like Google Plus, where we want to have the best quality participation possible. So, right now, the best way to get that is to have people have real names.
RUSSELLNow, we recognize people, like Salman Rushdie, have variant versions of their name. So I think we have to, as a sort of Internet culture, figure out how we're going to use those different handles, those different names and try to figure out to make the culture great, effective, real, but still allow some flexibility in naming.
CHOWDHURYYeah. I'm not sure I agree with that at all. I think the -- any company or government trying to impose their beliefs on what people should do is just fundamentally wrong. There are many circumstances with dissidents, et cetera, where anonymity is very, very important, and the technology should support that. There are other times when there are political figures and actually having the verification of who that individual is, is very important as well.
CHOWDHURYAnd any time that we try to build a system or dictate one absolute over another, it's just -- it's a flawed approach. So I think, like everything else in the world, it's never black. It's never white. It's some gray in between. And, I think, eventually, you guys will see that.
RUSSELLWell, the downside of that is that you get trolls with anonymity.
CHOWDHURYYou know, there are all kinds of problems. There are all kinds of problems in the world. Yeah. Like -- so you're never going to solve them all. So just accept the fact that technology is technology. It allows the world to communicate. And there's going to be various forms in which, you know, verification is very important, and lots of forms where anonymity is very important. And they should exist.
NNAMDIHow about you, Mary Czerwinski?
CZERWINSKII agree with Abdur on this one, I have to say. Although, me personally, I really want to know who I'm dealing with. I don't friend people that I don't know who they are. And that's how I take care of (unintelligible) okay.
NNAMDISame here. 800-433-8850. Whoever you are, we'll be happy to hear from you on this broadcast. How do you feel on the issue of anonymity online? 800-433-8850. No doubt, there are myriad ways to use tech knowledge for consumer or for money-making purposes. But I'm wondering about the not-for-profit future of technology. Can you identify some of the more exciting ways that you see information being harnessed and used in the future, education, health care, that kind of thing, Mary?
CZERWINSKIYeah, for social good, for sure. I think we can see Facebook being used in groups. We can see Google Circles being used for groups of people coming together to do good causes, have good events, have cultural events, educational events, professional events. So I really like...
CZERWINSKIRevolutions, exactly. So I really like seeing this aspect emerging over the last couple years. I think this is fantastic.
CHOWDHURYI think that technology is an amazing tool that's going to be used from everything from education to all kinds of other places not-for-profit. If you look at, like, the open source projects that are out there now that many, many pieces of software that, in the past you'd have to spend $10-, $20-, $30,000, they're now for free. And it's actually created not only great strides in, like, education and other communities where they can't afford that software, but also spurring lots of businesses that could not start without having very, very cheap or free software.
CHOWDHURYMySQL, I think, is a great example of that and how it revolutionized the database world. You no longer had to go to Oracle and spend $20-, $30,000 per CPU. Right now, you can go get MySQL for free. It allowed lots of businesses to jump-start and start up and create all kinds of value for consumers and people of all sizes, not just in education but maybe your local baker.
NNAMDIHow about you, Dan?
RUSSELLOne of the wonderful things about the Internet is that there are so many people doing so many different things. So if you look, for example, through the Twitter stream and the Twitter-verse or through the email that's being trafficked around, one of the great things we can do with that is start to analyze that for public good. So, for example, Google has this program called the Google Flu Trends where you can see actually before the CDC sees it when flu is breaking out, where it's breaking out.
RUSSELLWe're extending that to include models of things like dengue fever. You can look at the aggregation of data like that for the public good, and I think that's a tremendous asset to the world.
NNAMDIBut, Abdur, with so much information out there, the real challenge seems to be helping people become, as Dan was just saying, good analyzers of content. How can we help people learn how to access, filter and utilize all this information? Where should we start? Who's doing it well right now?
CHOWDHURYWell, I mean, there are a lot of people that are doing it well. I mean, you're filtering content and information for your audience. Lots of people go to newspapers. The newspapers are increasingly more online. There's lots of people that aggregate and filter down the myriad of, like, data coming out. People then try to say, here's the most important things. Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, all these things allow your friends, family and people that you think are important in the world to actually filter and share information.
CHOWDHURYSo I think that there's never going to be one solution to this. We're going to have lots and lots of filters that we, like, impose on the world, and we pick which ones we like to use. And I think the concept of not having all those filters or not being able to use this or that or the other thing, it would be bad.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about the Alta Vista School and what's going on there right now in that regard.
NNAMDIYou helped found that school.
CHOWDHURYYeah, I helped found the school. We started an elementary school in San Francisco about a year-and-a-half ago. School is focused on science and technology. I think it's very, very important for the younger generation, specifically kids, to become involved in learning and really, really have a passion for learning. The second thing is to be able to ask great questions. I don't care whether you want to become a scientist when you grow up or a radio host. It doesn't matter. You have to ask great questions of the world in which you live in, so you can better understand it.
CHOWDHURYAnd if you don't care about those things and start becoming more and more involved, then you get what you deserve. And I kind of put my money in and resources behind making sure that those things are important.
NNAMDIMary, any ideas how we can better learn -- help people learn to access?
CZERWINSKIYes. Actually, we have quite a few research projects going on in this area. And, in fact, what we're trying to do is to help everyone become a citizen scientist, so to speak, and giving them tools and visualizations that help them actually make sense of their own data and then potentially work together with their social circles or professional circles to comment on each other's data, help reanalyze the data, give other views of what could be in the data, ask more important questions and be curious about the data. So sharing data sets and providing users with tools to visualize the data can be really helpful.
NNAMDIDan, any thoughts on this?
RUSSELLSure. From one point of view, the Internet is a giant collection of data. You've got data coming from citizen scientists, citizen journalists. You've got data from professional resources and government resources. One of the things that excites me the most right now is teaching people to find that information, work it in a way that helps them understand more about the world, visualize it, analyze it, understand it.
RUSSELLSo I'm interested how can we teach regular people, regular citizens to be, effectively, journalists, to get that information from the Internet, pull it in and make sense out of it and help them to understand their world more deeply.
NNAMDIYou're trying to get rid of my job. Is that what you're saying here?
RUSSELLTrying to augment your job.
NNAMDIThank you. 800-433-8850. Help me augment my job, 800-433-8850, by joining this conversation. Is there a way in which today's information culture is changing your life for the better? You can contact us by email to email@example.com. Or do you feel it's making it worse? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Let's go to the phones, starting with Matt in McLean, Va. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTThank you, Kojo. The question I have concerns basically anonymity versus one of the roles it plays in popular dissent. If you look at what's happening with the Arab Spring, it was basically the social networks and the social revolution that enabled these political revolutions. If you bring that home and you start to look at things like the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace and the open ID initiative and you start to look at certain things that the U.S. government is doing -- we've heard a lot of reports lately about how the CIA is, you know, trolling the open source.
MATTThe question that I see -- one of the biggest questions that our generation is going to have to address or deal with is what happens once everything is visible to popular dissent. If you look at this in the context of what's happening right now with the Occupy Wall Street movement -- and I was just curious what your speakers today had to say about that particular issue and how they see that coming to play within the U.S.
NNAMDIAbdur Chowdhury, who made the argument, of course, that anonymity is sometimes necessary?
CHOWDHURYSometimes, it's incredibly necessary and, as the caller brought up, especially in these times where -- you know, whether it's in Arab countries or even in our own country, people want to voice their opinions and bring up things that are somewhat controversial but still want to hide behind the anonymity or the ability to have this kind of freedom of speech without the repercussions of what they may say.
CHOWDHURYLike everything else, this is a double-edged sword. You know, we founded this country on freedom of speech, and it served us well. And, yes, it's not always pleasant or useful or -- but I can't imagine a world that we would live in where we didn't have that.
NNAMDIMatt, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on the future of information. Our guests are in town to celebrate the launch of the Future of Information Alliance. It's a virtual think tank, whose goal is to foster dialogue, prompt research on all kind of evolving issues. Created by the University of Maryland, the Future of Information Alliance cuts across disciplines, includes all the schools and colleges within the University of Maryland and is overseen jointly by the iSchool, where computer gal, Allison Druin, is the associate dean of research and the school of journalism.
NNAMDIFull disclosure, WAMU is a founding partner with the Future of Information Alliance, as is the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Newseum, the National Park Service, National Geographic and many others. As I said, we're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. You can still call us, 800-433-8850. Or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to Tech Tuesday with out three big thinkers. Dan Russell is a research scientist at Google. He's often called Google's director of user happiness because he leads efforts to improve the effectiveness of Web searching. Mary Czerwinski's official title is research area manager of Microsoft's Visualization and Interaction Research Group. She heads America's largest human computer interaction laboratory.
NNAMDIAnd Abdur Chowdhury was chief scientist at Twitter until last month. His work focuses on search, recommendations and what he calls extracting the signal from the noise. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Dan, you've been called a search anthropologist. You spend your time studying how and what people search. A few months back, we, Google, tweaked its algorithm, which changed the type of results people got when they were searching. Some liked the new system. Others long for the old one, which was a bit less, I guess, intuitive, perhaps, but many say more accurate. What do you say?
RUSSELLGoogle is a big, complicated beast, and we're constantly changing all kinds of pieces of it. I'm most involved with the user interface, and so we're constantly trained to tune that. And, mostly, people don't notice when we change things. That's good because what we're trying to do is make sure you can just continue to evolve (word?) be better and better every day. With respect to the ranking algorithm, which is, I think, you're talking about the Panda change.
RUSSELLWhat we do when we change the ranking algorithm, is try to basically improve the quality of results. You type a query like, say, jaguar, and we have billions of pages we can crawl over and try to find something relevant. And we try to then sort those -- the top results, so we put those on the page. And that's what the ranking algorithm does. Truth is we're always tweaking it. So the truth is that there are always people who prefer the way it was, say, last year or five years ago or 10 years ago. But we're constantly in a struggle to try to pull the best results for the most people to the top.
NNAMDITalk a little bit about your a Google a Day project.
RUSSELLThe Google a Day project is really -- it's a simple idea. We pose a kind of search challenge every day, and we let people then try to solve that problem. So what we do is -- in effect, what we're really trying to do is to help people to become better searchers. My research has found that, well, people can use Google really easily, no problem. One of the things they don't do is they don't use it to its full capacity.
RUSSELLIt's a bit like driving your car but only using the first two gears. Let me show you how you to use gears three, four and five. That's what a Google a Day is trying to get to, is how to take these interesting little puzzles that you search, become a better searcher and increase your ability to understand the world.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of programs now give you suggested search terms, trying to anticipate what you need. But doesn't that, in a way, pick favorites or result in the lowest common denominator being raised to the top rather than, perhaps, someone finding the best match to what they're looking for? What do you think, Mary?
CZERWINSKIWell, we're trying to work really hard at Microsoft Research on personalizing the search results to you. So we remember very much what you were doing, what you were searching for, and we try to remember those topics and re-rank results so that they're more relevant to you. We found that people actually end up researching for the same terms quite often. It's almost like 50 percent of the search queries are researches of the same content.
CZERWINSKIThis isn't actually my research. I mean, this is Jamie Teevan and Susan Dumais, but -- so the personalization work will be really helpful to you. And I think it won't water down the relevance of the search results.
NNAMDIWhat are your thoughts on this, Abdur?
CHOWDHURYIt's all good. You know, many lives ago, I used to work on Web search myself. In fact, a third of all the Web searches we saw were in what we called some kind of query reformulation. And that was people actually trying to learn to how to ask the right question. And so they might say, you know, restaurants. And then, all of the sudden, it's restaurants in Washington, D.C., restaurants in Washington, D.C., sushi, and they're really trying to home-in on this, like, to get the best answers.
CHOWDHURYYou know, both of these people here, their work is to really improve that. And they're doing phenomenal work there. And it really changed the world in which all of us live. Right now, the availability of information to everyone on the planet has increased many-fold by being able to access that data as fast as possible. You know, the life in which I live, and probably yourself, because of that technology, has greatly improved.
CHOWDHURYAnd when these people are trying to work on it every day, you know, of course, it's going to upset a couple of people. But, you know, generally, they're working very hard to make sure that their consumers and users of their product are getting a better product every single day.
NNAMDIYes. And I have become reliant on that technology. Here's Aaron in Washington, D.C. Aaron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AARONHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was -- I just had the thought -- and I've had it before, that the government always gets nervous when you have all these unvalidated (sp?) IDs online. So Facebook has million of users, and it's hard to tell who is who. But if the government created a better social networking site, which is still a very competitive market, that enabled you to do more things, like, pay your taxes in a secure identifiable way, a lot of people don't have a problem with providing their real information.
AARONI mean, Facebook wouldn't work if 90 percent of the users weren't honest. And I just wondered, like, why do we always seem to be behind the ball with that? And do you think it's possible that in the future they might try and do something like that?
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Dan?
RUSSELLThe government and a social networking site.
RUSSELLThe mind boggles.
NNAMDIYou know, someone suggested putting the IRS in charge of it.
CHOWDHURYWait, it's really -- government and doing in the same sentence, that, I always find amusing...
RUSSELLNo. I find it an intriguing notion. I mean, he extends the notion what we think government should do. I mean, one of the things government actually, does really, really well is collect data. So, for example, Bureau of Labor Statistics is a fantastic resource to find all kinds of marvelous data about the world where, you know, census and so on. Social technology, in particular, at this point in its evolution, is flowering in many-fold ways.
RUSSELLCould the government get into it? Yes, they definitely could. It's a matter of developing a really interesting product. And I think one of the things that we've all learned from our careers is that it has to be in a world that has to evolve very nimbly. It has to not become stagnant. And that's, actually, the barrier, I think, the government has in developing a social network, the kind you describe.
NNAMDIAbdur, you still seem skeptical.
CHOWDHURYWell, I think we are all a bit skeptical of the government being able to pull off such a thing. And Dan alluded to one of the larger challenges. I just don't see it moving fast enough or being able to generate anything that's really compelling for citizens to become involved. I think there's a lot of already existing platforms that might be more powerful for that, you know, Twitter, Facebook, where you can actually have communities.
CHOWDHURYPolice stations now have Twitter accounts and share information of what's going on in a community. Many politicians are out there and lay out their stance in many different viewpoints of what's going on in people's communities. This allows for people, if they choose, to become better informed citizens. And I think that's really the key. I think, like, the identity thing is far less important than people becoming more informed citizens of the world they live in.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Adam in Virginia. "I think one of the most exciting elements of current technology is the various kinds of crowdsourcing. I'm a contributor to openstreetmap.org and the 3-D Buildings Layer of Google Earth. With people all over the country and the world adding data, it accomplishes what would be impossible with a smaller number of people, such as a corporation or government agency. What do your guests see as the future of crowdsourcing?" First you, Mary Czerwinski.
CZERWINSKII think it's really popular. We use a lot even in science now. It's pretty unusual to do psychology or sociology or even Web experiments these days without an element of crowdsourcing to collect data. So we're leveraging it to great degree, and I think the entire world is going to leverage it to great degree in terms of labeling photos, yeah, fixing maps, you name it.
NNAMDIMaybe this is where your academic qualification comes in. Because an anticipation of today's conversation, I was not surprised to learn that both Dan and Abdur hold Ph.D.s in computer science. I was a bit surprised to see that your Ph.D. is in cognitive psychology. Did you foresee, at any point, that you'd be doing this with your degree?
CZERWINSKIWell, my lab was a very computer sciencey (sic) lab. I did have to teach myself how to program. We did run all our experiments on computers, and I modeled human attention and human memory. So we were very mathematical and used computers, and I love the technology. So it's kind of a natural marriage, actually.
NNAMDIBecause when I think of crowd sorting – crowd sourcing, I think about the psychological aspects of crowdsourcing also. Abdur, I guess, we should be saying welcome home to you. You taught computer science at Georgetown University and lived a lot of years in this region. What drew you out to Silicon Valley? And how does living and working on the West Coast compare to life here in Washington, D.C.?
CHOWDHURYWell, that's a few questions. I had started a company called Summize a number of years ago. We focused on three things: real time search, sentiment analysis and summarization. It turned out all of our products, no one really cared about. It turns out they didn't care about emotion as much as we thought, but the one thing that really took off was called Twitter Search. And, in fact, you may be using it right now. So about three -- a little over three years ago, we joined the Twitter team out there and moved out to San Francisco, and it's a great weather out there, 65 and sunny most days.
NNAMDIAnd we're going to be 70 today exactly.
NNAMDIOf course, tomorrow is something entirely completely different, which is probably one of the reasons you were glad to leave.
CHOWDHURYSo I enjoy the area. It's -- I love coming back to D.C. There's incredible food here. I love, like, the vibrance of the city. You know, if you want Ethiopian food, you can get it. If you want incredible Chinese food -- it's just, like, a great place and melting pot to come back to.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Back to work. Here is...
NNAMDIHere is MFA Fire. (sp?) You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MFA FIREGood afternoon, Kojo.
FIREI wanted to address issue of anonymity on the Web. Ten years ago, I started an online Web journal. And at that time, I was in a marriage, unfortunately, plagued by domestic violence. And, for me, I think it's important that we preserve both the ability to have that freedom of speech with abandon without concern that anyone knows your actual identity, wherein you can actually share that with those that you want without any naivety knowing if someone ever needs to actually find out who you are.
FIREThere's always a footprint. Someone can always find the IP. They can trace anything. So it's naive to think anyone is truly anonymous, but it actually gives a great degree of freedom. And for someone like me, it was a tool for transparency into what was going on in my home in safety, so I could communicate with people, like my best friend, my mother, anyone who is very worried about what was going on.
FIREAnd that, I think, the power of -- in both information -- two-way information and communication is just unbelievable, the potential that that has for any social issue, so I do think we need to preserve that ability to legalize that tool and protect.
NNAMDIBut, you know, MFA Fire, I think, one of the concerns about anonymity is not only whether or not we can authenticate whoever claims to be whoever they are, but the level of, I guess, uncivil -- uncivic -- uncivil behavior and the level of verbal abuse that takes place in the name of anonymity. Is that something we simply should learn how to live with, Abdur?
CHOWDHURYWell, first of all, to the...
NNAMDIMaybe we should learn how to live with that.
CHOWDHURY...caller, I'm sorry about your situation. I'm glad to find out that, you know, technology was able to at least help a little bit and that I completely agree that there are many situations in which people need to be anonymous and share ideas. I think that this kind of open sharing of information is fundamental to the world in which we're about to live in. You have no idea how that data -- while it helps your life become more relevant and more understandable to your friends and family, you have no idea if it really helped, like, the next person who may or may not have been sharing similar experiences.
CHOWDHURYAnd so I think it's very important to realize that there's many reasons to be anonymous, and it's not just like the freedom fighters in some XYZ county, but cases like our caller here who even used an anonymous name.
CZERWINSKIYeah, and I think many of the social networking sites allow users to actually report abuse today. And so I think, you know, getting back to what Kojo said, I think, when people cause "trouble" in these circles and it's deemed to trouble by the users, I think there are ways to report it. So it's...
CHOWDHURYWell, there's lot of ways to report it and block it. All the technology can block XYZ user-friendly. So like the ability to block or filter that for each user is out there, and I think that's important.
RUSSELLOne of the things that comes into this is to what level people, like the caller, understand what footprints they're leaving on the Internet. So you mentioned building a blog, which probably was registered at some point and might have a DNS domain name that was associated with that. And one of the things, I think, we, as a culture, have to learn is, when we're putting information out on the Web, who else can see it without other information who they derive from it.
RUSSELLSo there's a lot of anonymity services that one can use. We direct email through an anonymity of servers and so on. There's a lot of technology that's supporting the freedom to be anonymous, right?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, MFA Fire. In case you're just join us -- joining us, we're having a Tech Tuesday conversation on the future of information. Our guests are all in town for the Future of Information Alliance Conference taking place this week, the Future of Information Alliance being located at the University of Maryland. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Is there information that you cannot access today that you'd like to have at your fingertips in the future? And, if so, what is it?
NNAMDIYou can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, to ask a question or make a comment or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Armando in Riverdale, Md. Armando, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARMANDOHi. How are you doing, Kojo?
ARMANDOI'm just -- thanks again. So my question is about arts and technology and the intersection of that. Is it a friend or a foe? I'm a performing artist myself, and I'm getting ready to move back to New York. And this is a really engaging use -- technology and visual media to start putting myself out there, you know, showcasing my work. But I just want to know what your panelists thought about that and/or questions they have or comments on that.
NNAMDIHere is Mary Czerwinski.
CZERWINSKIYeah, this is a great topic. I don't know if you even realize that many new departments are opening up on universities exactly in the nexus of these two areas. And we have seen unbelievable creativity emerge from the use of new technologies, like computational fabrics, new kinds of ways of creating music and orchestras, robots learning different styles of jazz, for instance, and riffing with you collaboratively. So I think there's just tons of stuff that can be done. We're only seeing the beginning of this really great new future area.
NNAMDIArmando, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you.
NNAMDIWe move on now to Dave in Silver Spring, Md. Dave, your turn.
DAVEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
DAVEI just wanted to mention, consistent with the theme of Internet helping nonprofit, civic action, community service and community development organizations. I operate a website called The Civic Action Free University, which can be found on the net at civicactionfreeuniversity.net, all in one string.
NNAMDIOkay, got the commercial in. Now, do you have a question or comment?
DAVEYeah. Well, my comment was that we get absolutely super duper support from Google. Many of our component Web pages come up number one on the Google search, and we didn't contrive that in any way. It just seems to have happened. But we really love Google and appreciate the help we get and also from YouTube, which is a Google subsidiary, if I'm correctly informed.
NNAMDIDan, you're being showered with affection.
RUSSELLIt's wonderful. Thank you. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Dave. We've been hearing for a while that the future of computing is not on PCs or in laptops. The future is mobile, and the future is the smartphone. Does the fact that most of us will be accessing information on a, oh, well, a two-inch screen affect the way that we'll be thinking about knowledge in the future, Abdur?
CHOWDHURYOh, absolutely. I think the first way that we should start thinking about how this is going to change, like the way we deal with the world, is that we have instant access to information. It doesn't matter if you're walking down the street and you want to know where you are. You can call it Google Maps or any other of the map products out there and understand where you are in the world. There's lots of great services, like Yelp, that all of a sudden can tell you what the best restaurants are around you.
CHOWDHURYI don't know if you've ever used the monocle view in Yelp. It's amazing. It's like -- it's virtual reality augmentation. So you pull up your iPhone, and you can look around in the actual world. And it uses the accelerometer to realize which direction you're pointing the phone in. It uses the camera to take a picture of what's there. And then it overlays the restaurant reviews. I was in London a couple of months ago, and I was able to just look around and say, oh, wow, here's going to be a good restaurant.
CHOWDHURYI had no idea which one -- where to eat because it's not my city. And I -- this ability to bring information in and augment our world and make it a better and richer experience is amazing.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up because having access to information from GPS devices has already changed a lot of lives. I certainly know people who now travel to new places with a confidence they never had before. But directions and good restaurants may be just the start. How are sensors like the GPS device going to change our futures in ways we may not have yet imagined, Mary?
CZERWINSKISo the phone is going to become a sensor for you, and we can already sense your activities, your context of what you're doing. And there's a ton you can do with the computer because of that. Your phone can actually proffer up good ideas for what you typically do in that context. So maybe you're traveling on the road to work. It wouldn't be a good time to take a call, but it might be a great time to suggest a different route because there's an accident.
CZERWINSKISo the phone can get very smart, contextually, about what you are doing as an activity. The other thing I wanted to mention, because you mentioned the two-inch screen, is it's not just about the smartphone. It's about your whole universe of devices. So your smartphone should be able to interact with your tablet, which should be able to interact with your big wall display. Or maybe you have a projector on your phone, and you can project information to the wall and see it more easily. So there's a lot more in the ecology of devices that we can do with the smartphone.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. But, Dan, I suspected you wanted to add something. I suspected incorrectly...
RUSSELLI do. You're absolutely right. I do.
RUSSELLSo I think Mary's actually on to something really important, which is the ecosystem of devices. We think of a phone as being this thing we hold in our hand. But, in fact, if you think about tablets, if you think about -- Mary mentioned just about the contact lens, we're having a wealth of new kinds of display technology. And that means you can put the tablet behind the dripping sink that you've been fixing while watching the YouTube video. I think these new kinds of devices, new form factors will really change the way we get information, the way you use it, the way you learn.
NNAMDIYeah. As a matter of fact, on Food Wednesday a few weeks ago, we had a discussion on food apps so that you can now have the tablet on your counter while you're cooking and use it, too, for your recipes and everything else you need to do to cook. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the future of information. We still have few lines open. Call us at 800-433-8850. Go to our website at kojoshow.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on the future of information. We're talking with Abdur Chowdhury. He was chief scientist at Twitter. He left last month. His work focuses on search, recommendations and what he calls extracting the signal from the noise. Also with us in the studio is Dan Russell. He is a research scientist at Google often known as Google's director of user happiness. Dan Russell leads efforts to improve the effectiveness of Web searching.
NNAMDIAnd Mary Czerwinski's official title is research area manager of Microsoft's visualization and interaction research group. She heads, basically, America's largest human-computer interaction laboratory. They're all in town for the launching of the Future of Information Alliance that's taking place at the University of Maryland this week in which WAMU is a founding partner with the likes of the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the Museum, the National Park Service, National Geographic and many others.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Abdur, a lot of people blame technology's rapid ascent for one of the most basic of human problems, our apparently rapidly shrinking attention span. I'm wondering how you see your work feeding this, how you see it fighting it or how you see it in dialogue with it 'cause a lot of people say Twitter is what's reducing our attention span.
CHOWDHURYYeah. I think people already had a, you know, attention deficit disorder already before Twitter was even conceived. There's a lot of things that are competing for our attention everyday. Technology makes us just more and more aberrant. Is this a good thing? Is it a bad thing? I think, like, it -- only time will tell. It depends on what you're doing. Sometimes you just need short bursts of attention on various topics.
CHOWDHURYSometimes you really need to lock yourself in a room and think about something for hours and really in depth. Technology is not the problem. Technology allows you top have the freedom of those choices. You don't have to use Twitter every five seconds, although I've checked mine a few times trying to figure out what people were saying.
NNAMDII was pretending not to notice, yes.
CHOWDHURYBut, like -- you know, you have that freedom of those choices. And so we need to teach ourselves and each other how to make those choices in a more adult fashion. So you get your assistant coming in and saying, hey, here's been some questions, like you are getting, you know...
NNAMDIHe's actually my boss.
CHOWDHURYYour boss is coming in and saying, look, here's some interesting emails that you should pay attention to. But all of us are always getting these distractions, and what we do is formulate a world around us in which that we can still be productive and get the information how we need it.
NNAMDIIn the next hour, we'll be having a conversation with an individual who wrote a book about how distraction might actually be helpful in the workplace. But that's, as I said, another conversation. When it comes to information retrieval, Dan, are there certain clear problems we are still unable to solve? Are there types of information or types of problems that maybe people are still better at solving than computers?
RUSSELLPeople are better in solving all kinds of problems, right? One of the great things about Google is you can learn all kinds of stuff, including things you might not have thought about. So, for example, the other day, I was trying to re-rush one of my cane back chairs. Have you ever tried to do that by looking at printed instructions? It's insane. It's just crazy. But if you go and watch the YouTube video, you got it, like that.
RUSSELLIt's a fantastic thing to do. The -- I wanted to also comment on Abdur's question about...
RUSSELL...about attention management because I want to leverage that last point. It's one of the skills to teach. So one of the things, I think, to your question, what do people do really well, they can teach other people really well. And in particular, when I teach my classes on how to be a better searcher, one of the key skills is how to manage your attention, how to stay focused on that problem that you're trying to understand. So it's not enough to just say, whoa, shiny thing, go there. You actually want to stay on your task, try to get things done. It's not totally out of your control.
NNAMDIMary, you've said that in five or 10 years, kids won't want to touch a keyboard. What can we expect to replace it?
CZERWINSKIThey already don't want to touch a keyboard. It doesn't take five or 10 years. Kids love making videos. It actually is very viral. It's a very effective way to transmit information. They use it for useful things, like actually showing projects, demonstrating things, but they also use it very creatively to have fun with each other.
CZERWINSKIWe've done experiments with adults as well in the workplace, and we have shown that for some things, like demonstrating a prototype, showing how something is put together or assembled. Video is an amazing thing -- showing diagrams for, you know, organizational charts or architectures of systems. Video is much more effective in communicating with your colleagues.
CZERWINSKISo, I think, for family and loved ones, for kids and for business people alike, video is going to be way more used in the future. And we're going to have to type less because machine translation is getting so good that we can actually translate your speech and your video to text for searching and indexing. And video search and indexing is going to improve as well in the future.
NNAMDIHow about voice activation? What are the remaining obstacles to voice activation becoming ubiquitous?
CZERWINSKIThere aren't really any obstacles. I think we have some real neat ideas coming out with Bing and Xbox using voice in a Kinect computing device. So speech is here.
NNAMDIOnce they can figure out various accents. That's all it is.
NNAMDIHere is Joe in Baltimore, Md. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEHi, Kojo, I'm a big fan of the show. I love Tech Tuesday, so thanks for having me on.
JOEAnd my question is about what I've heard in the news -- in news stories is this -- referred to as the DarkNet or Deep Web, the Internet that isn't accessible through traditional means in search engines. I heard this particularly through a story about Anonymous, the hacking group that actually recently attacked a child pornography ring that was operating in DarkNet or Deep Web. I don't know exactly what this is. I'm kind of a layman. So I was just wondering if your guests have any thoughts on the Deep Web and its effect, and it kind of goes back to that question of anonymity...
NNAMDIThe pitfalls of anonymity. Abdur?
CHOWDHURYWell, I'm not familiar with the story that the caller was referring to, but there's always been kind of the dark Web. I think the -- a paper from -- was it Broder? (sp?) -- in late '90s, probably, was going after that. And it was really about all those data that's accessible, but not to search engines because it's dynamic. It's created from a database, or it's hidden in another way. It's behind a password or something else.
CHOWDHURYAnd, you know, I don't know. Google has made great strides in being able to fill out forms and extract a lot of that data. You know, in terms of child pornography and other things that people are trying to hide, I'm sure they're trying to hide it for...
NNAMDIWell, you know, there's -- as long as been -- there's been a world, there's been an underworld. As long as there's been an economy, there's been an underground economy. There are some things, it seems, that if people are determined to participate in criminal enterprises, they're going to find a way.
CHOWDHURYI don't think we should blame technology for that. I mean, you know, like we've kind of talked about this theme a little bit today. Technology is not good or evil. It's just a tool which we use and we should be using to better our lives.
NNAMDIWell, here's an email we got from Jamie. And, Joe, thank you for your call. Jamie asks, "What are some of the future legal problems you envision that will be caused by technology, other than security and privacy? For instance, I'm thinking about antitrust, copyright infringement and other problems yet to be exposed." Dan.
RUSSELLThey're all big problems. Copyright has always been with us, except when it hasn't. So, for example, during the French Revolution, for a period of time, copyright was abolished, and it led to kind of a dismal meltdown of the publication business. So we do need these protections for intellectual property and for copyright and so on. And a big problem is that there's actually -- we live in a world where there are a lot of different information resources.
RUSSELLSome of those follow copyright. Some of those follow intellectual property protection. Some don't. When everything is so wired together, it's difficult to sort of separate the wheat from the chaff, those which follow versus those that don't. I think the second big thing is that there are huge policy implications for new technologies development. How are we going to develop the policy in anywhere close to the amount of time it takes us to invent new technology? I don't know a solution for that.
CHOWDHURYYeah. I mean, like, the speed in which technology is improving or increasing is dramatically faster than the speed in which our government and public policy occur. I think there's one other big challenge that we have, like information is accessible all over the world. And so you end up with all these barriers that made sense, you know, 1,000 years ago or 100 years ago or 50 years ago. But, right now, this information goes between Germany and the U.S., and there are different laws about all this stuff. And that creates lots and lots of difficulty.
NNAMDIAnd maybe this is the last big challenge we'll have on this broadcast: how to help Ruby in Derwood, Md. make the qualitative leap. Ruby, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RUBYOh, God bless you. Hi. Okay. So I'm a computer Luddite with one skill, which my friends call me the Google Whisperer, which is my idiot savant skill 'cause I have no computer skills whatsoever, but I could search up a lot of stuff. But here's my question. If I'm going to launch myself into learning, how to become more tech-savvy, and I like communicating with my friends -- usually face to face I prefer. I'm a big reader, and I love music. What is the -- if there's one device I should own and that would be easy for me to start to learn how to use, what would it be?
NNAMDIWould it be a smartphone, by any chance, Mary Czerwinski?
CZERWINSKII was actually going to say a tablet, a tablet computer….
CZERWINSKI...probably with a touch screen.
CHOWDHURYAnd a camera.
NNAMDIA tablet computer, preferably with a touch screen. Ruby, you will be...
RUBYI actually -- I haven't lost you yet. Don't ask me about crowd searchers or anything else, but I understand what that is. Am I -- would I be able to print stuff out from that or not?
CHOWDHURYSome of the tablets -- Apple has something called AirPrint right now, which allows you to print lots of devices, but a little expensive.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're out of time, Ruby. The next edition of the Computer Guys, make a call, and they'll tell you specific tablets that you can purchase. But thank you very much for your call. Dan Russell, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDan Russell is a research scientist at Google. Mary Czerwinski, thank you for joining us.
CZERWINSKIThank you. You're welcome.
NNAMDIMary's official title is research area manager of Microsoft's Visualization and Interaction Research Group. Abdur Chowdhury, thank you for joining us.
CHOWDHURYThanks for having us.
NNAMDIAbdur was chief scientist at Twitter until he left last month. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo and guests explore what you can learn about D.C. by riding its bus system.
T.C. Boyle's latest novel explores the darker side of the American ideal of freedom, from a woman who follows the extreme libertarian "sovereign citizen" movement to a disturbed young man who models himself on the pioneer John Colter.
It's your turn to discuss these topics or whatever is on your mind.