Monday, July 18, 2011

The Rewiring of Our Brain by Google

   Last week Science magazine published a research by Columbia University psychologist Betty Sparrow titled "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips". Since then there have been numerous posts on the topic exploring the subject to conclude whether this is good or bad for us humans.
   The research explains that we have now begun to outsource our memory to the internet. Particularly, Betty is trying to point that instead of remembering the information itself, we now tend to remember where we can locate that information, sort of like indexingI believe this has always been the case, the difference now is just that the medium of memory storage has changed. In ancient times people passed on information from generation to generation via rote learning and literally remembering the scriptures. Then the birth of writing and paper led to them ink down those scriptures on paper and other mediums which led to books as a medium of storing and spreading information. With the advent of physical memory storage came devices like floppy disks, CDs, hard disks etc. and a new medium had emerged.
   Today if I am looking for information on any topic I can just search it over the internet which makes massive information available at our fingertips. This information overload is so enormous that now we are fed with enough information in a day that our forefathers could have accumulated in their entire lives. Imagine the power that Wikipedia has given to each one of us by making a huge database of massive facts on every topic in the world available to us instantly and at all times. When I was a kid, gaining information on our topics of interest was a tedious task. So we were left with little or no information on various topics that interested us and that sort of killed our curiosity. Fast forward to today, and the internet has given us tools to not just satisfy our curiosity for infinite knowledge but also grow it. How many times have you gone on Wikipedia to search for a particular  topic and ended up reading hours about similar such topics? So you see internet may be rewiring our brain but there are positive effects too.
    While I am no expert on this matter and its long-term effects are yet to be seen, I do believe outsourcing our memory for tasks like historical facts isn't troublesome. Who knows if relieving our brain of storing not-so-critical facts may even make it work more efficiently in some other way. And one thing is for sure, one never tends to forget things about a topic he/she is particularly interested in. More importantly, memorization isn't as important as other tasks our brain is entitled to carry out like creativity, imagination. Even the education systems worldwide are moving away from the method rote learning (or learning by heart as some call it) to system which promotes critical thinking and logical reasoning. The point I am trying to make here is that the rewiring of our brain by internet in general and online search engines and encyclopedias in particular may have some real positive effects too in the long run.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Google+ : The Journey So Far

   Google is a behemoth which having started as a humble search engine now spans over most of our digital lives. In its latest foray it has taken over the social networking world by storm with their shiny new product - Google+. Is it a facebook-killer? Heck it is. At least its designed with that in mind. No matter how much Google denies this but one of the chief reasons Google+ has been conceived, at all, is to kill facebook's dominance in social space. And this has not only to do with the advertising dollars that facebook was starting to grab from Google's wallet. But if you go by Google's own theory there's more than meet's the eye.
   Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. And they did fine all this while to live up to their mission, even excelled beyond just search. Then came along the social networking wave and as everyone knows they missed it completely, in fact they completely ignored it. Although they had products like Orkut but they were still not integrated into the mainstream Google ideology. When facebook clearly emerged as the dominant social network and started eating up from Google's ad lunches, Google took notice. Meanwhile Facebook also had amassed something important. FB not only had a huge user base but they also had access to user's social graph. 
   By this time Google had realized that in their mission to organize the world's information they were missing a very important piece of the puzzle - "People" or as some call it Online Identity. Yes it is people who make the information, it is people who consume the information. This made Google to pull up its socks and start working. Their initial efforts - Google Wave and Google Buzz - stumbled. But Google came back with vengeance. And what a comeback it has been so far. Google+ has since been received with glorious reviews and is all set to compete with facebook for online identity. It may take years to get the kind of user base that facebook enjoys today. Google is aware of this and hence have repeatedly said that Google+ is a long-term project. In fact they call it less as a social network but more as a project to make Google social and this is a just a tip of the iceberg with more rocking features yet to land. 
   But being late to the party has its advantages. Google+ could learn from the shortcomings of other existing social networks. So Facebook's shortcomings gave Circles and Twitter gave asymmetrical relationships. But Google+'s killer feature to me is that awesome black bar hanging around all Google properties. It keeps one engaged irrespective of where we are on Google. Those red notifications on black bar are conspicuous enough to catch one's eyes. No wonder Google hired ex Apple lead designer Andy Hertzfeld to create the UI and UX of Google+. While it remains to be seen how Google+ fares, the initial momentum it has garnered is wonderful. Paul Allen, the founder of, already says that by 12th July 2011 Google+ could have 10 million users and 20 million by weekend. And that is in just about 3 weeks of launch. Bill Gross even goes to the length proclaiming that Google+ will go from 0 to 100 million users faster than any other service in history.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Shape of Things to Come

     Recently IBM completed 100 years. That's a huge achievement and looking at its past IBM kept on innovating and rapidly adopting to the changing landscape and gave us many innovations that changed our lives forever like the ATM. Now here's a look at some of the new-age companies working on cutting-edge technologies that I think are gearing up to revolutionize the future and seem more than ready to take us to the next level in their respective fields. While I am not comparing these firms to IBM, they indeed seem to rock on the innovation front.

1) Better Place - Rethinking Public Transport

   In 2005 when the then SAP veteran Shai Agassi left the Young Global Leaders conference, he had already made up his mind that he will focus on climate change as part of his efforts to make this world a better place and so he founded Project Better Place, later renamed Better Place. Agassi conceived the idea to sell electric cars like the cell phone industry - so the cost of the electric cars (which until now has been one of the main factors affecting their mass adoption apart from charging the electric batteries) will be subsidized depending on the duration of your contract and you will pay for the electricity you will use to charge your car's battery similar to the the way you are charged for talk time by the cellphone operators. Better Place will provide the infrastructure for charging and even replacing the batteries in their electric cars like the cellular operators use towers to provide network coverage. Today Better Place has tie-ups with governments like Israel, Denmark and others to lead the way to sustainable and green transportation.
From their website - 
"Better Place delivers the network and services that make an electric car affordable to buy, easy to use, and amazing to own. Electric car drivers will have access to a network of charge spots, battery switch stations and systems that optimize the driving experience and minimize environmental impact and cost."
That can indeed make countries that are relatively small geographically like Israel become oil-free sooner than we expected! Imagine oil-free!!!

2) SpaceX - Making Space Exciting Again, but Cheaper this Time

   Founded by the legendary Elon Musk in 2002 by investing $100 million of his own money until 2006, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is a private space transport company.In Dec 2010, SpaceX became the first company to successfully launch a private spacecraft, orbit  the Earth and then recover (return to Earth from orbit) it for which it was recognized with the Space Achievement Award by the Space Foundation. SpaceX has, so far, in its arsenal - 2 main reusable space launch vehicles Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy based on a cluster of Falcon 9 and Dragon which is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft which it intends to use for a manned commercial space program. In December 2008, NASA announced the selection of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft and a multi-million dollar deal under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) when the Space Shuttle retires. While there are others in Space aviation but SpaceX distinguishes itself as having drastically brought down the cost of space travel and will continue to do so further.
From their website -
"In an era when most technology based products follow a path of ever-increasing capability and reliability while simultaneously reducing costs, launch vehicles today are little changed from those of 40 years ago. SpaceX aims to change this paradigm by developing a family of launch vehicles which will ultimately reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access by a factor of ten."
Next up - a manned mission to MARS and even space tourism.

3) Recorded Future - Predicting the Future the Digital Way

   This one is straight out of a science fiction movie. Recorded Future is an early stage company based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts specializing in predictive analytics with the goal to "unleash all that mankind knows about the future". So what do they do? Recorded Future scours the web using what they call as world's first temporal analytics engine; then extract, analyze and rank the information to make it useful using powerful visualization tools. In sum, they try to predict the future using all the signals available online. No wonder then that some of its investors include Google and the CIA.
From their website -
"The world's 24x7 media flow is filled with temporal signals, including reports of what's transpired or statements of what's expected to come. Recorded Future's linguistic and statistical algorithms extract time-related information and through temporal reasoning we structure the unstructured. We help users understand relationships between entities and events over time."

4) Lytro - Redefining Camera as We Know it Today 

   Now here is a company founded by Ren Ng, a light-field photography researcher from Stanford, that claims to redefine the camera for the first time in more than a century. The current crop of cameras only capture one plain of light. The cameras being developed by Lytro claim to capture the complete light field i.e. the entire amount of light traveling in every direction through every point in space. This essentially means that once you have taken a snap, you can always go back and change the focus in the snap, re-orient it and even switch seamlessly between 2D and 3D. Lytro claims to have used powerful software to replace many of the internal camera components to achieve this. For more details, check out Lytro's photo gallery and how it works. This technology has always been there, but Lytro makes it portable and affordable enough for consumers.