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The Continuing Metamorphosis of the Web

April 27, 2009

Posted by Alfred Spector, VP Research and Special Initiatives

I just returned from giving a talk at the 18th World Wide Web Conference in Madrid and was pleased to see a healthy and dynamic conference despite difficult economic conditions. Madrid had beautiful spring weather, and a magnificent modern architecture abounds throughout the city. I will say, though, that the Madrid subway does not vibrate (shake, rattle, and roll) one’s soul quite as much as does our local NYC subway.

My talk was entitled The Continuing Metamorphosis of the Web. In it, I noted that the initial web standards were so simple and sensible that they engendered a path of stepwise innovations, which taken together have aggregated into amazing accomplishments. Metaphorically, I feel our community has been on a kind of pseudo-random walk that has taken us to remarkable places. The truly great results have included the creation of a virtual Library of Alexandria, the creation of the search engine (to be that library’s super-card catalog), the empowerment of the long tail (in diverse communities), and great innovations to doing business. I argued that the bottom up evolution is continuing (perhaps even accelerating) today, and that the current stepwise improvements are still leading to broad innovations, which we will come to view as extraordinary as any that have occurred to-date.

Here are three great achievements currently a-brewing:
  1. “Totally Transparent Processing.” By this, I argued that our use of the web (whether for search, communication, or information access) can increasingly occur in a fluid manner that is independent of the device we are using, independent of the human language we prefer, independent of the modality of the data, and independent of the corpus of information on which our interaction is based. In effect, processing can be transparent ∀d∈D, ∀l∈L, ∀m∈M, ∀c∈C. Our barriers to using information technology are fading away and becoming transparent.
  2. “Ideal Distributed Computing.” While we have known the fundamentals of distributed computing for many decades, only today are we reaching a state where we can achieve a powerful and efficient balance of computation between all end-user devices and a vast collection of shared storage and computational resources. Cloud computing is today’s term d’arte, but I talked more generally about systems with the flexibility that computation and data can move across computers within a cluster, across clusters of computers and—of course—between clusters and all other (say, end user) devices. The result is the efficient, even awesome, capability to provide communication, computation and data to a vast collection of people and applications.
  3. “Hybrid, Not Artificial, Intelligence.” Systems are regularly augmenting the capability of all of us in day-to-day life, and our collective use of those systems is, in turn, augmenting the capabilities of those systems in a beneficial virtuous circle. The virtuous circle is operating already in the search engine, voice recognition systems, recommendation systems, and more. There is every reason to think the effect will become ever more potent as computers are applied to more domains and and used by larger populations. The result may not be artificially intelligent machines that pass the Turing Test, but instead systems that will be ever more capable of helping us achieve our goals in life -- in a kind of partnership. For a related take on this, you might look at a Google Official Blog post, “The Intelligent Cloud,” which Franz Och and I posted last Fall.
More explanation and many examples, based on Google research and services, are available in the slides I used with my talk. A PDF file of those slides is available on the WWW2009 website under the papers and presentations link.