It’s 1989, and Tim Berners-Lee, a little-known English software developer, is working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. His project — what we now know as the Internet — gets little attention compared to the Berlin Wall’s fall or the Tiananmen Square clash.
Spring forward 27 years, and the Internet has become more essential to our lives than its creators — or its users — could have dreamed. Google’s search bar has replaced the lists of curated websites, opening our eyes to the brilliance of intent-based search. Facebook has created a social graph packed with personalized recommendations based on friends and likes, and we’ve embraced the convenience of context-based newsfeeds.
Today, many of us feel that the Internet is solving our problems as efficiently as possible. But what if, in another 27 years, we were to look back and see intent-based search as a humble beginning?
The Problem You Didn’t Know You Had
Intent-based search is incredibly useful when — and only when — you know what you’re looking for.
But what happens when you’re not sure what to type into the familiar rectangular box? Let’s say you’re trying to discover new music. You might start looking at your social network, but your friends don’t have the same taste as you. You could check YouTube, but how do you cut through the cat videos to find what you’re looking for?
When the Internet was young, online information was so scant that search wasn’t needed. As it grew, search became the Internet’s centerpiece and predominant function. Now, there’s more information online than anyone can comprehend, and intent-based search cannot filter it finely enough to deliver relevant results.
A new kind of Internet is in order.
Enter: The Contextual Web
The contextual Internet acknowledges information alone is not valuable, and there’s so much information online that nobody can hope to learn it all. Having information in the right context is what makes data desirable, actionable, and useful.
This Internet must be built upon and connected by universal profiles. Rather than relying heavily on a search bar, it should be structured like Google PageRank for Web pages: Personalized relationship graphs, using the information about what each person cares about, could generate personalized, proactive recommendations instead of standardized search results.
Today, social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn do this limitedly: They might customize trends or search results on the platform to the user’s political leanings or social circle. But while social networks do a great job of collecting this data, they’ve used it to create closed-off ecosystems.
Universal profiles, in comparison, would enable the Internet to scrape data from our calendars, social networks, search results, geographic locations, and more to generate proactive recommendations. Only by combining media can an online network truly understand what information we might need.
Let’s say I’m a chemist. Today, if I search “oxygen,” then I’ll likely turn up results for the Oxygen television channel, the element’s Wikipedia page, various software platforms, WordPress themes, and more. In the future, the contextual Internet should instead recommend to me academic sources about its oxidation states, reactivity tables, crystalline structure, and ionization energies.
Through repeated use, the contextual Internet would come to understand who we are. It would deliver the information we want and when we want it — even when we didn’t know how to ask for it.
The Creators of the Contextual Web
The contextual Internet can benefit us all in ways we can’t yet understand, so it is perhaps fitting that we’re collectively creating it.
For the first time, this sort of Internet — one that delivers information before we know we need it — is computationally possible, thanks to technologies like Spark, Hadoop, and deep learning network Nervana.
Technology companies are using these platforms’ computational abilities to aggregate data and process it to create proactive solutions. Google Now, for example, acts like a personal assistant by recommending information that might be relevant based on users’ behavior and location. Apple’s Workflow uses deep-linking technology to offer relevant recommendations based on users’ last action, and Pandora analyzes listeners’ likes and skips to deliver music that the user doesn’t yet know, but will most likely love.
Quid might be the closest to this vision of a contextual Internet: It’s working to ingest all the world’s written content and organize it into visual, interactive maps to display the specific information a user is searching for and to help them understand the nearby informational landscape. Quid pulls from news, investment data, patents, video transcripts, call transcripts, product reviews, and more in an attempt to contextualize information for the user exploring its data maps.
The Business of Context
Much as the computer reinvented how we communicate, the contextual Internet could change how we do business in nearly unimaginable ways.
This Internet could recommend products and services to customers — and customers to companies — with incredible grace. It could offer to call an Uber for an individual walking at night down the streets of Los Angeles, and it would glance at the time before suggesting his home as a destination. It could send contact recommendations to a businessperson wanting to make connections in Silicon Valley and, from there, list restaurant options and offer to create a reservation. With almost no effort, it could help a dog grooming business in Kansas City discover the dog owners in its area who recently purchased pet care services, and it’d offer coupons to those owners as they walk past the business.
When this Internet arrives, salespeople will find customers without looking; questions will answer themselves; and the Web will predict our every need. The contextual Web will change our world in a way we didn’t even know we desperately needed.
This article was written by Falon Fatemi from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.