Sometimes A Search Engine Just Won't Do

"We have forgotten that a question is an invitation to a human experience." So says Damon Horowitz, CTO of Aardvark. Horowitz, who spoke last Friday at TEDxSoMa, has a unique worldview that is the love-child of his Masters in engineering and Ph.D. in philosophy.

Back in college, Horowitz' first love was artificial intelligence. Given enough time, he figured, he could use AI to solve any problem. And he certainly had the skills, using them to co-found an AI-based search engine called Perspecta, which ultimately sold to Excite. But the problem, he discovered, was that no matter how advanced your algorithm, the computer was only pattern matching. Computers are very smart, he says, but they lack common sense.

In reality, they lack something even more important: emotions. In "Descartes' Error," Antonio Damasio describes the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker in the 1800s who had an iron spike shoot through his brain in a freak accident, destroying one of his frontal lobes. Even freakier, Gage at first appeared to be relatively unaffected by the incident: his speech and all his physical abilities remained the same. It took some time before anyone noticed that what had been lost was his ability to make decisions, an ability directly connected to the ability to feel emotion.



Tomasio describes a similar affliction in one of his present-day patients: "The instruments usually considered necessary and sufficient for rational behavior were intact in him. He had the requisite knowledge, attention, and memory; his language was flawless; he could perform calculations; he could tackle the logic of an abstract problem. There was only one significant accompaniment to his decision-making failure: a marked alteration of the ability to experience feelings. "

Without feelings and emotions, all we can ever do is pattern match. The only reason we consider one piece of music superior to another is because of the emotions it generates in us, but a computer can never experience that kind of subjectivity. Nor will it, as Horowitz points out, ever understand why we react differently to stories about earthquakes in Haiti than we do to stories about vacations in Haiti -- and sometimes we need those emotions understood for our questions to be properly answered.

Enter Horowitz' latest venture, Aardvark. Like Perspecta, Aardvark uses artificial intelligence, only instead of the algorithm finding the answer, it finds someone who is willing to provide it. Questions range from the mundane ("What's the medical term for that gunk that grows on your tongue?"), to the humorous ("I accidentally dropped my MacBook pro 15" in a large bin of chili. It was in there for about 2 minutes or so. How can I salvage it?" "Unless your MacBook was really dirty, I think the chili will be fine."), to the hopeful ("Anyone managed to make a relationship between an atheist and a Christian work ?"). In other words, if human subjectivity or engagement can make the response better, Aardvark might just be the ideal starting point for your question.

It's virtually impossible to beat Google at the keyword/query/SERP game, but Aardvark is playing a different game altogether. It's the game you play when you just can't find the keywords, and when you don't know which result to trust. It's the game we human beings are best at playing: that of connecting with each other and having a shared experience.

"Technology cannot solve all of our problems for us," says Horowitz. "The task of thinking is still ours."

I invite you to think, and to share the experience, in the comments below or on Twitter @kcolbin.

2 comments about "Sometimes A Search Engine Just Won't Do".
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  1. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, January 26, 2010 at 12:55 p.m.

    I am on the floor laughing from the MacBook query. Thank you!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 26, 2010 at 2:43 p.m.

    HAL can read lips, too.

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