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Esther & Eric chatting it up on the BT Big Thinkers Series

Posted by direwolff on October 15, 2006

Just got done watching a really interesting conversation/interview that Esther Dyson had with Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. I’m always interested in hearing Esther’s perspectives as she had been a lecturer at Theseus Institute, the MBA programme I attended in the south of France back in ’93/’94. She’s someone whose generally astute insights and punditry I have followed since my early days in the PC industry (1983). I was acquainted with Eric when he was still at Sun Microsystems during my days at First Virtual Holdings, Inc. (FVHI), the first Internet-based payment system, back in ’95/’96. He was well acquainted with the founders of FVHI, Nathaniel Borenstein, Marshall Rose, Einar Steffereud (first mailing list in 1975) and Lee Stein, the first three being designers of some of the early protocols of the Internet, which is how our paths ended up crossing. From the limited interactions I’ve had with Eric, he has always been a mindful communicator.

Three related topics from their interview struck me as worth exploring further. The first was when Esther brought up a point around personalization, and Eric explained that “[a certain degree of] ambiguity is found in every query” (especially when dealing one or two words in a query box). He went on to comment that Google believes that by knowing more about a person (with their permission) will help to address this issue. This seemed to support Esther’s thoughts on the matter. However, I disagree with this perspective because even in our human interactions we require more hints of context that have nothing to do with personalization, to understand what’s being discussed or requested. One of examples Eric used was that of “Brazil” referring to either the country or the play (there’s also a movie with this title). If only this word was entered into a search query, even if my clickstream was provided to analyze, I don’t quite see how any of that info would be helpful. Mainly because if at the moment that I’m looking for Brazil I start at the query box, then there’s no real guessing what’s on my mind. However, providing tools that can help me disambiguate the meaning may go much further than trying to devine the answer of my intention. Even if yesterday I had spent all day on travel sites, this should contribute no more weighting to the country as the correct response than the play.

My hope for search technology is that it be enabled to help us reach our intentions through the use of tools that facilitate how we express more precision around our requests, not that we enable it to guess our intentions. I don’t want to interact with people who are mind readers any more than machines who would try to achieve such a thing. I also feel this way because there’s a false sense of security built into these guesses and as people see one or two correct answers, they begin to believe that much more complex processes can be automated beyond their need to oversee these. That’s when the problems begin. Note the false positives that came up in the “no fly” list of the Transportation Security Administration (also here and here). The fact is that search technology makes for excellent tools to help us sort through lots of information more efficiently, but it should not be depended upon to supply the answer automatically, even if such is buried within the data. Time should be spent on tools to help us disambiguate our requests, and keep the personalization issues out of this. Keeping my personal clickstream out of this becomes more clear in a subsequent point I’ll discuss below. Sorry if I seem a bit too luddite here, but in part I believe that people know what they’re looking for and need the freedom of seeing the results from their requests, since much learning can be done from these even when the need for finding an answer is immediate.

Another personalization point that Esther pushed on was its importance in terms of reducing click fraud (since we would know whether the click came from a machine or a person), or enabling services to know that a person read something versus a machine. It seemed that personalization as she was describing it here was serving more the interests of those being interacted with (whether this is an advertiser, a service or a person) rather than the interactor, as is the perspective laid out in the AttentionTrust Principles, where the question being addressed is, “how does managing my [information] clickstream serve me?”.

The third point which made me sit up and pay closer attention was when Esther raised issues around healthcare data and the role that Google could play given its Gmail architecture of private silos. Eric’s responses about the legal issues internationally were dead on, which is a relief that he has this understanding, but Esther’s questions seemed naively set in the mindset that often leads our government to say things like, “the people of this country have to give up their privacy in order to obtain greater security in these dangerous times”. While this may play in Mississippi, the framers of the Constitution foresaw this and rejected this sort of argument. Specifically to this interview, Esther suggested that where a Google or other company could aggregate people’s healthcare information anonymously, this could be great for addressing and trying to diagnose the spread of epidemics and disease related issues. While she’s absolutely correct here, the other issue at hand, which Eric raised, is that there are ways to find out who the people behind the anonymized information are, not to mention the temptations of future governments to have access to this information. Hence, the risk of reducing our privacy in some way based on the promise of a better future is not the sort of argument that we should succumb to, however tempting it might seem. My concern was that she seemed to be insisting on the aggregated information across private data stores model, because of this greater good it could offer. It has been a dangerous argument used to rip our constitutional rights from us in these terrorist related laws and I’m concerned that her perspectives could have an impact on others committed to seeing these come to reality.

All-in-all however, this interview was a fun hour to spend listening to two smart people converse about important issues of our times.

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One Response to “Esther & Eric chatting it up on the BT Big Thinkers Series”

  1. Ken Ewell said

    The ambiguity of personalization

    I listened to the dialogue between Esther Dyson and Eric Schmidt and found it disturbing in several respects. Mainly I would like to add some comments about the personalization issues that were discussed.

    Pierre wrote that Google believes that knowing more about a person (with their permission) will help to address the issue of ambiguity in searching. I believe Microsoft recently released reports of research they conducted that support Google’s position.

    in this critic, I will limit my views to the discussion of Google’s ‘system’ not that it is not shared by most search engine vendors and ‘organizers of information’.

    For the discussion in the beginning, concerning the business culture and model at Google, believe me, I went to school and took notes, but the rest of the discussion left me nonplussed.

    I think that the practices of “personalization” (via collecting and indexing users habits) is anti-system, if Google’s ‘system’ is founded on the principals of the wisdom of crowds. If individuals are not important, what is so important about personalization, which, in my own humble opinion, only serves to patronizes individuals– that is it! Of Course! Personalization is a gimmick to win patrons. It makes perfect sense now. Google only wants to win patrons. Google serves its patrons.

    As a user of search engines, they would be more personal if they could help me filter and cope with all the information. They could help clarify the information and identify similar patterns and relations that are relevant to me.

    I also have to admit the Google does a pretty decent job at delivering a range of relevant information from the Internet and it has gotten noticably better more recenty– without any kind of personalization.

    What Google does not do is sort that delivery out for me. In some cases it can be six million hits. Can I download the pages and form a new collection for my personal use and research? Can I catgeorize them? Can I sort them into topical divisions that interest me? Can I clarify which of the six million are reachable and relevant. That would be personalization to me, and Google will not help do any of that work.

    To clarify and make less uncertain; to connect and to cogitate; each of these activities requires interpretation and disambiguation. That is something that serves the individual mind — both the intellect of the individual and the culture to which that individual contributes.

    Serving the individual mind and the intellect of the person is not considered as a form of “personalization”. In fact, I was recently reminded of the American circus-inspired adage that no one ever got rich appealing to the natural intelligence of people.

    This kind of personalization is something that serves our sense of humanity but not any business. In the real modern world in which we live — at least in the business world ruled by the likes of IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Google– personalizing software by making it help people think, discover and achieve their intellectual quests is just some ambiguous sentiment– it is not even real. I say hooey to all that, of course, as Pierre might tell anyone.

    Let’s just take a closer look at the activity of clarification to clarify the ambiguous way in which they use the term personalization.

    I do not need to know you from Harvey but if you walk up to me and say “Brazil”? I am going to ask you for clarification. So I did not hear Esther or Eric talk about how to clarify the user’s intent without the also collect personal information.

    It was disturbing to me that they did not consider how all the data organized by Google could be clarified, but instead Eric and Esther seemed to discuss the pro’s and con’s of the activities of collecting personal information –as if doing so was the only way to better organize information for the individual. I had to ask myself: What are they selling?

    How about asking the person using the query “Brazil?” — What do you mean? The Country, the Play, or the Movie? Asking for clarification does not involve individualization or the collecting of personal information. This is the activity of connecting words to concepts and ideas, people, places and things. Google is obviously unconcerned about such things as one would think it would be important enough to mention. Most people think about a response to any inquiry by connecting the word, names or phrase to concepts that form their world view and complete their individual and personal understanding.

    What did I mention next: reducing uncertainty. Well, as I have just demonstrated, the act of asking for clarification reduces uncertainty. Connecting words to concepts within the cultural sense and world view of the individual is another big part of reducing uncertainty. It is something every individual does. Eric and Esther touched on this subject briefly.

    The reason I bring it the readers attention is that it may be interesting for anyone to view the clip and check out the body language of Eric Schmidt when he talks about the ambiguity and languages and where he sites an example in English– “hot-dog” — indicating ambiguity, and goes on to state that there is more of it in other languages. This without further clarifying what Google could be doing about that ambiguity –as if nothing can be done.

    Compare the body language to the part a few minutes earlier in the tape where Eric was so excited about the rate in growth in new content. Google’s mission, after all, is to deliver the information, and it is obvious Eric Schmidt sees search as fundamental. He is all for more information to search through. He is not about organizing it for individuals. He is about organizing it for the crowd. In the entire conversation, he did not offer any indication of how the search results can be individually improved. In fact, improving search results was contraindicated. Eric clearly was for getting more databases rendered as web pages so they could be searched by Google. He even reminded viewers to use robots.txt in a very clever and smart way.

    There is clearly a new empire be cleaved at Google and the Emporer wants to be the world’s clothier, dressing it in information tailored for each patron. Now look at Eric’s’ body language when he associates ambiguity with cognition and understanding. He dismisses it all– ambiguity, cognition and understanding –from his domain and the empire he is building –as if it has nothing to do with search.

    Why is ‘understanding a persons world view’ not considered a path to “personalization”? Why is ‘understanding how people think with words (language comprehension) not considered a path to “personalization”? Why is not helping people compile information into their personal database for public or private use– not a matter of “personalization”? Why is not helping people use the information not a matter of “personalization”?

    How is it that if I disregard how people connect words to concepts and ideas, people, places and social topics, if I disregard natural cognitive processes that filter out irrelevant information, and I alter the focus from an objective of achieving accurate and insightful information useful for personal direction, to a task of reducing any inquiry to that word that the search engine can deal with effectively– such as that long medical term Eric mentioned in the discussion– can qualify as personalization? That is not personalization in my book.

    Perhaps they should use the word: patronization when they talk about collecting personal information and indexing click streams– that better characterizes their efforts and their research agenda.

    -Ken Ewell

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