Confused About the Consequences

In the previous couple of posts, I’ve rambled about web apps that will find a book from its cover and a song just by playing it and your online contacts across a myriad of services from your username on a single service.

But today I saw something that brought home to me the consequences of aggregating millions of tiny individual actions, in this case photo uploads to the flickr social photo site.

Form my reading of the post, the purple overlays in the images above – not the blue bounding boxes – are generated automatically by clustering geotagged and placename tagged images and extrapolating a well contoured shape around them.

That is, from the photos tagged “London” [that is, photos that are tagged with London in Yahoo’s WOE service], the algorithm creates the purple “London city” overlay in the above diagram.

For each an every photo upload, there is maybe a tiny personal consequence. For millions of photo uploads, there are consequences like this… (From millions of personal votes cast, there’s the possible consequence of change…) [Update: apparently, flickr received its 3 billionth upload at the start of November…]

And it struck me that even the relatively unsophisticated form of signals intelligence that is traffic analysis was capable of changing the face of war. So what are the consequences of traffic analysis at this scale?

What are the possible consequences? What are we walking into?

(Of course, following a brief moment of “I want to stop contributing to this; I’m gonna kill my computer and go and grow onions somewhere”, I then started wondering: “hmm, maybe if we also mine the info about what camera took each photo, and looked up the price of that camera, we might be able to generate socio-economic overlays over different neighbourhoods, and then… arrghh… stop, no, evil, evil…;-)

So to add to the mix, here’s a couple more things that the web made easy this week. Firstly, the Google Visualisation API was extended so that it could consume data in a simple format from your own data sources. That is, if you allow your own database to output data in a simple tabular structure, the Google visualisation API makes it trivial to generate charts and graphs from that data. Secondly, Google added RSS feed support to their Google alerts service. This makes it easy to subscribe to an RSS feed that will alert you to new results on Google for a particular search. What really surprised me was how, after setting up a couple of alerts, they appeared without me doing anything (or maybe that should be – without me changing something to say “no”?) in my Google Reader account.

Small components is one thing.

Small components loosely coupled is another – and one where many of us see value.

Small components automatically wired together is yet another thing – and one that is increasingly going to happen. A consequence I hadn’t anticipated of setting up a Google RSS alert was that the feed appeared automatically in my feed reader.

Yesterday, an unanticipated consequence of me adding my blog URL to my Google Profile page was that several other URLs I control were automatically suggested to me as things I might want to add to my profile.

Whenever I go into Facebook, the platform suggests a list of people I might know to me, whom I might want to “friend”.

Now this recommendation may be because we share a large number of friends, or it might be that I’ve appeared in the same photograph as some of these people… How would Facebook know? Maybe Mircosoft, their search provider, told them: Why “People” Tags? describes how the beta version of Microsoft Live Photo gallery automatically identifies faces in photos and then prompts you to tag them with people’s names… Google already does this, of course, in Picasa, with its “name tags“.

And finally…a chance clickthru from someone on the Copac developments blog, which lists in the blogroll, alerted me through my blog stats to this post on Spooky Personalisation (should we be afraid?) which discusses the extent to which “adaptive personalisation” may appear “spooky” to the user.

(A serendipitous link discovery for me? Surely… Spooky? Maybe!;-)

And that maybe is going to be an ever more apparent unanticipated consequence of the way in which it’s getting so much easier to glue apps together? Spookiness…

PS see also Does Google Know Too Much? (h/t Ray@B2FXXX)

The Future of Search Is Already Here

One of my favourite quotes (and one I probably misquote – which is a pre-requisite of the best quotes) is William Gibson’s “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”…

Several times tonight, I realised that the future is increasingly happening around me, and it’s appearing so quickly I’m having problems even imagining what might come next.

So here for you delectation are some of the things I saw earlier this evening:

  • SnapTell: a mobile and iPhone app that lets you photograph a book, CD or game cover and it’ll recognise it, tell you what it is and take you to the appropriate Amazon page so you can buy it… (originally via CogDogBlog;

  • Shazam, a music recognition application that will identify a piece of music that’s playing out loud, pop up some details, and then let you buy it on iTunes or view a version of the song being played on Youtube (the CogDog also mentioned this, but it was arrived at tonight independently);

    So just imagine the “workflow” here: you hear a song playing, fire up the Shazam app, it recognises the song, then you can watch someone play a version of the song (maybe even the same version on Youtube.

  • A picture of a thousand words?: if you upload a scanned document onto the web as a PDF document, Google will now have a go at running an OCR service over the document, extracting the text, indexing it and making it searchable. Which means you can just scan and post, flag the content to the Googlebot via a sitemap, and then search into the OCR’d content; (I’m not sure if the OCR service is built on top of the Tesseract OCR code?)
  • barely three months ago, Youtube added the ability to augment videos with captions. With a little bit of glue, the Google translate service will take those captions and translate them into another language for you (Auto Translate Now Available For Videos With Captions):

    “To get a translation for your preferred language, move the mouse over the bottom-right arrow, and then over the small triangle next to the CC (or subtitle) icon, to see the captions menu. Click on the “Translate…” button and then you will be given a choice of many different languages.” [Youtube blog]

Another (mis)quote, this time from Arthur C. Clarke: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. And by magic, I guess one thing we mean is that there is no “obvious” causal relationship between the casting of a spell and the effect? And a second thing is that if we believe something to be possible, then it probably is possible.

I think I’m starting to believe in magic…

PS Google finally got round to making their alerts service feed a feed: Feed me! Google Alerts not just for email anymore, so now you can subscribe to an alerts RSS feed, rather than having to receive alerts via email. If you want to receive the updates via Twitter, just paste the feed URL into a service like Twitterfeed or

PPS I guess I should have listed this in the list above – news that Google has (at least in the US) found a way of opening up its book search data: Google pays small change to open every book in the world. Here’s the blog announcement: New chapter for Google Book Search: “With this agreement, in-copyright, out-of-print books will now be available for readers in the U.S. to search, preview and buy online — something that was simply unavailable to date. Most of these books are difficult, if not impossible, to find.”

Rock the Academy

Now there’s nothing wrong with conference posters, but this is more LIKE IT

[via the CogDog himself: Rock the Academy Video]

And can you imagine showing this to your head of research, I mean, your HEAD OF RESEARCH, and saying “I wanna go to this… I REALLY wanna go to this…”. They’ll probably look at you and say:

“Kid, we don’t like your kind, and we’re gonna send your fingerprints off to Washington.”

And friends, somewhere in Washington enshrined in some little folder, is a study in black and white of my fingerprints. And the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into the shrink wherever you are, just walk in say “Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”. And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them.

And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.

And I think that’s what we’ve got here – a movement… You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant..

PS so OU folks, when we gonna put together movies like this to advertise each and every course on the courses and quals site?! DMPB, would that fall under your remit? Or would Ian be fighting you for it?;-) heh heh