Thursday, July 22, 2004

Is Technology Evolution?

Ever since the invention of the wheel, smelting of iron before that and the discovery of fire even before, it has been assumed that all that has been created are external and therefore outside us. These discoveries and inventions certainly help in making life easy, but it is in no way an indispensable part of life, like life wouldn’t survive without it.

To a very large extent that is true, whatever creations of human engineering we’ve enjoyed have just been comforts. But there is something happening of late which I foresee to be a precursor of a more fundamental change. After years of beating our heads against the inert chemicals of nature, iron, copper, steel, silicon, we’ve finally come to a point where we’re creating things which are not just enhancements of what happens in nature but something totally different. This is not just one change bur numerous small things that are happening around us. I would say that this is as fundamental a change as bipedal locomotion or the opposable thumb. And of course, it’s happening in the realm of software.

Over the years, manufacturing and global economy and trade have also come into this area. But to a very, very large extent, we really don’t consider them as a fundamental change in terms of evolution of humanity on a day-to-day basis. We might be involved in it completely but it still doesn’t strike us that without it, humanity wouldn’t survive. We see it more as a complexification of the numerous systems in place and live it down as something which has to be endured. And with the advent of computers, our documents, presentations, and maybe our customer service phone calls have improved, but really, it doesn’t go much beyond that, does it? We spend ours in front of silicon and glass boxes, but still don’t consider them fundamentally a part of us.

It all started when I downloaded 'Brain', a plugin for Winamp, that ubiquitous software for PCs which plays all kind of music and video files.

What ‘Brain’ does is it just sits quietly in the system tray and watches your music playing habits. What music you play, how often, which ones you skip through, which ones you fast-forward. And based upon all this data it draws it’s conclusions of your likes and dislikes. The actual lightning strikes when you’ve had enough of playing your music collection by choosing through them and select ‘brainplay’. Once the ‘brain’ takes over, it plays according to what it understands of your music preference! And not in the order of ‘most played’ or ‘most popular’ and all those combinations! It plays random files, even those that you haven’t played before but guesses that you might like it!! And believe me, in all this time, it doesn’t seem to have made any mistakes on my system! 'Brain' comes with it's own audio player, and it's called Synapse, obviously!

The other software I came across is something called ‘Blinkx’. This is a downloadable search tool, which when you use to search, gives results not only from the internet and news / blog feeds, but also from your local drive! The interesting thing about this? It doesn’t search by ‘keywords’ or specific terms but by ‘ideas’ and ‘concepts’. And instead of throwing up one file which contains what you’re looking for, it gives all the files which it thinks you might be interested in! I discovered long, lost documents which I knew I had saved, but had forgotten the names of! And not just that, when you’re using ‘Microsoft Word’ or ‘Internet Explorer’ as soon as you select a word or a phrase, it automatically scans the web, the local drive, newsfeeds and blogs to give a set of results if you’re interested in having a look! You don’t have to put terms in a search box, you get online information from everywhere as you type! So from now on, I don’t have to think about organizing my documents any more! I can throw anything anywhere & ‘Blinkx’ will find it for me!

Both of these softwares, don’t work from the word go. They sit quietly and watch what you do. They keep track of what you’ve done. And based upon all this data actually end up providing to you something that is not only meaningful, but also intelligent!

Why I say that these two softwares are indications of something fundamental is because all these ages, that engineering and communications have primarily achieved is number crunching, whether it comes to speed or distance. We can make more widgets and send them anywhere, both much faster than what would have been possible otherwise humanly. But now, suddenly, I see information that could only be given by another human! To observe, to draw conclusions from and to suggest associations which we didn’t know existed!

Finally, finally, we’ve created something greater than us. Finally, the whole, meaning computers and us, is becoming more than the sum of its parts.

And this is surely a jump in evolution, don’t you think?


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