Search Is Now In Robot Hands
The ability to find information quickly has become, arguably, the most significant currency of our time. Information once passed and distorted by whispers is now broadcast, unchanged, to millions in a keystroke.
Yet as our capacity to record and store data grows, our ability to access it without support shrinks. Whether it’s the answers to life's essential questions or a cat-based time-wasting, it all begins with a search. This is best illustrated by searching for how many searches are made per day? 3.5 billion that is 40,000 a second.
Yet with fewer than 5% of users moving past the first result page, and developments like Voice and Ambient UI only returning a single search result, is this the death of search as we know it?
Moving Past the First Page of Search
Despite sounding like something from a dystopian Black Mirror episode, ask someone old enough and they will remember a time before digital search. They might even regale you with stories of physically going to the local library and searching the shelves, typically to find the book they want is not there. These dark and frustrating times seemed to disappear overnight with the advent of the internet.
The intervening years have seen the digitisation of all human knowledge. The volume of data stored digitally is estimated to be 163 zettabytes by 2025 (search zettabytes for confirmation of its massiveness). But what started with the important stuff like Maths and Science soon extended to include every piece of data we could get our hands on.
Developments in our personal technology mean we are able to track everything from the number of steps to water consumption and quality of sleep. We have all become walking content factories, posting images, writing comments and recording our every stat. YouTube alone gets 400 hours worth of uploaded content every minute.
This seems like a bold statement to make but searching through this sea of data is now an impossible task for a mere human brain. Think about that for a second. We are now entirely dependant on the robots to search and select for us. If you wanted to plan a trip or find out if a shop was still open, how much longer would it take you without digital assistance?
Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing. There are countless benefits to allowing the robots to do the heavy lifting. The search referenced above returned 1.08 million results in 0.45 seconds. When was the last time you read that many documents in search of a simple answer?
Putting Our Trust in AI Applications
But this does lead us to a question of relevance. As mentioned above, 95% of us don’t look beyond the first page of search results. That is a lot of trust we are putting into unseen robotic hands; to select a single screen worth of the best and most relevant results. And this trust is set to increase.
The proliferation of smart speakers and voice UI seems to be moving us in a screen-less direction. With the absence of a screen, our friendly voice-based assistant can only respond with a single answer. We will no longer be able to convince ourselves that by selecting from that first page, we are somehow equal partners in the selection process.
If some search becomes limited to a single result what results might we expect from common terms like dress or trainers? Imagine the money that could be demanded if you controlled the result (singular) for a word like car. Is Peugeot or Subaru the correct answer for a search for the best car?
Beyond voice UI, Ambient UI represents an even more significant step in this outsourcing of what we want to know. Ambient UI takes the data from your personal devices like Apple Watch or Google Glass and predicts what you might be interested in searching before you even ask. Walking towards a train station, for example, might result in a prompt giving you current train times for a journey you have taken before.
It all sounds great, like a voice in your ear giving you all the right answers exactly when you need them, but is there something akin to cheating if we start to outsource even the search terms themselves? Where is the line drawn between an active participant and merely human recipient?
In truth, we have already come too far, and benefit too much from the storage and access provided by the robots. It is now more valuable to know how to source information than try and store it in our fleshy, inefficient brains.
All we can do, as we search for yet more cat-based oddities or for an ex-partners insta, is keep our reliance on the robots at the forefront of our minds…and perhaps pop into a library for old times sake.