Let's say you were interested in the noble rural sport of moose-taunting. ("Hey moosie, your mother's a whore.") Like cow-tipping, it can be dangerous (I have two cracked ribs that indicate I may be more than a little familiar with the consequences of teasing large ungulates), so perhaps you decide to research it a little using Google. In return, you get 80,000-plus links, with the first page including some squabble between a guy named Eric and another guy called Moose, a blog called The Gilded Moose where one entry accuses Jessica Simpson of taunting the world, two sites discussing a stage presentation called Evil Dead: The Musical, something from a chat session about a Nintendo game, a notice from Yellowstone National Park about some tourists who were charged by a moose after taunting it, a report from Alaska about a child attacked by a moose, and an article about the Washington sniper of a few years ago. (One of the police chiefs had the last name Moose.)
Now, all of those had a reason to come up in the results–they contain the words moose and taunting somewhere in their texts. Slap a pair of quote marks around both those words (so that you only see results with them together and in sequence) and the number of results drops to seven. The top three are about the Evil Dead musical, one's from an outdoors journal, there's a comedic reference in an article about jogging in Alaska, an old hockey match report, and finally an expired reference to a chat-board discussion.
Admittedly, there's not much useful information here, if you were looking for hints on going out and taunting a few moose. It's as if the whole sport didn't even exist. Frankly, I'm beginning to suspect I made the whole thing up. On the other hand, I am a big fan of Sam Raimi's three Evil Dead films, so it's a lucky discovery to find out there's now some kind of musical adaptation for the stage. (I bet there's a song called "Tool Shed!") You always can learn things from the Net, just not always what you wanted to find. And once this article appears on-line it will join the pool of results the next time someone thinks about heading out into the woods with the aim of disparaging the wildlife.
Thus we come to the problem of the Internet today: it gets bigger every time someone mentions moose-taunting, but when you search there's not much to help you narrow things down other than a few ancient search-engine tricks like using quotation marks or minus signs. We may be reaching the limits of the old "here's everything" search with its big scoop of results. While Google has been pretty successful to date in using its mysterious proprietary algorithms to rank results by their presumed relevance and popularity, it's not working as well as it used to. That might be because there are so many people attempting to crack Google's code to improve the rankings for their clients, which is bound to skew things, but the sheer growth rate of the Net must be a factor, too.
The overwhelming mass of information residing on the Internet is now bringing search professionals around to dealing with a matter that's been a long-standing topic of computer research: the near-philosophical academic discipline of artificial intelligence, or AI Based on the reductionist concept that individual neurons in the brain are much like computer circuits, AI researchers have devoted decades to experiments with hardware and software, only to discover that intelligence is a very complex thing. It turns out humans have a lot of innate knowledge that is not easily codified.
The solution, according to current thinking, is to unleash the brainpower of thousands of volunteers, whether they know they're helping out or not. One example would be the e-mails I get from Amazon.ca, telling me that people who bought such and such a book also bought this other one, or have pre-ordered an upcoming release. True, that's little more than data-mining, but it does qualify as a kind of targeted promotion based on human input, in the form of purchases. The same principle applies at the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com/), with film recommendations at the bottom of the page when you look up another movie, once again based on input (overt, this time) from people who just like to contribute.
The ultimate realization of user-contributed content to date is Wikipedia, the encyclopedia where anyone can add or subtract information from the articles on-line. That does mean you can't fully trust the entries on controversial subjects, but the recent development of Wiki Scanner (wikiscanner.virgil.gr/) is beginning to provide a way for those edits to be tracked back to the computer networks they came from. The past few weeks have been full of examples of whitewashing in entries on corporations and even Vancouver's own sad-sack mayor.
But given Wikipedia's rapid success and the overall importance of searching on-line, it's probably no surprise Wikipedia's founder is working on a search-engine project, and that conferences have already convened on ways that searching can become more intuitive at discerning exactly what someone is looking for. Now, if only that technology could be extended to the real world, so that you could easily find stuff like your keys and cellphone.