Jan 4, 2019

Getting Surprised By Technology


I've always thought I'd be impervious to technological advancement. I thought I'd never see something so profoundly different from what I already knew, that it would be a surprise.

For example, it's incredible to sit in a Tesla and have it park itself or change lanes or brake when there's another car ahead. But I've always thought of these as just another step above how cars work at all. Metal boxes hurtling across huge concrete highways right next to each other is already such an amazing feat that it happening without my hands on the wheel is hardly any different.

Another example is live streaming (video + internet). It's rididulous that I can watch something happen in any place in the world in real time. But computers (and electricity) are black magic in themselves. It's crazy that I can store thousands of videos on a thing that sits in my pocket. It doesn't make a big difference that the video is something that happened already or is happening right now.

But today, I realized that there is something profoundly different that will take some real effort for me to get used to: interacting with machines in full sentences.

Today, I wanted to look up if governmental employees that have to work during a shutdown get paid for their time when the government opens up again. My first thought was to figure out the keywords I'd need to search with. "Government"? "Shutdown"? "Employees"? "Paycheck"? If I could just find the right keywords, I could get to a Wikipedia page on government shutdowns and read the whole thing to find the one fact I needed.

I realized this instinct to find keywords will be obsolete in the next generation. I still think of search as a glorified SELECT statement that depends on how data is structured. If I need to search for X, X or some finite set of words that mean X better be somewhere in the data. As a corrollary, keyword search is still the easiest and cheapest way of implemeting search. But that will probably not be true 10 years from now as tools for AI advance and it becomes standard to train models.

More importantly, the next (and current) generation is already training to talk to machines in the same way they would ask of a human: in full sentences. When you ask Alexa when Elizabeth Warren was born or how much time is left on the timer, you aren't thinking about keywords, you're just hoping Alexa knows. This training comes back to searching in apps and websites. I expect that when the next generation goes to google.com, their instinct is to type a full sentence, rather than finding the right keywords.

I don't know when I'll stop thinking of search in keywords, but I am surprised at how this technological advancement crept up on me and how I suddenly had this realization that I'm behind in my understanding of technology. Now that the seal is broken, I expect that not only will I find more instances, I expect that this will not be the last time I'm behind.


When I shared this post with Amisha, she pointed out that it's an internet meme to see older people attempting to search in full sentences. I wonder if we're that one unlucky generation between how things should be?

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