Intelligent Search Agents

Washington Post writes about what’s next in search:

As the Web has grown, it has developed a kind of embedded wisdom. Obviously the Web isn’t a conscious entity, but neither is it a completely random pile of stuff. The way one part links to another reflects the preferences of Web users — and Google tapped into that. Google, in detecting patterns on the Web, harvested meaning from all that madness.

This points the way to one of the next big leaps for search engines: finding meaning in the way a single person searches the Web. In other words, the search engines will study the user’s queries and Web habits and, over time, personalize all future searches. Right now, Google and the other search engines don’t really know their users.

For example, Saffo isn’t really interested in the stuff that most people look for when they do a Web search. He’s one of the premier futurists of Silicon Valley and fondly recalls the days, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the pre-Web era, when the Internet was the reserve of the technological elite who posted their brilliant thoughts on electronic bulletin boards. Now, everyone from about third grade up has an e-mail address and loiters around the Web as though it’s the corner 7-Eleven. The results of a Web search reflect the tastes of a broad swath of ordinary Americans who in some cases are still wearing short pants.

“The more people get on the Web, the more the Web becomes the vaster wasteland that is the successor to the vast wasteland of television. I don’t care what the majority of people are looking at, because the majority of people are really boring,” Saffo says.

He needs a better search engine. He needs one that knows that he’s a big-brain tech guru and not an eighth-grader with a paper due.

“The field is called user modeling,” says Dan Gruhl of IBM. “It’s all about computers watching interactions with people to try to understand their interests and something about them.”

Imagine a version of Google that’s got a bit of TiVo in it: It doesn’t require you to pose a query. It already knows! It’s one step ahead of you. It has learned your habits and thought processes and interests. It’s your secretary, your colleague, your counselor, your own graduate student doing research for which you’ll get all the credit.

To put it in computer terminology, it is your intelligent agent.

China’s Chip Manufacturaing Foray

WSJ writes how China is attempting to move up the value chain in semiconductors:

Having gobbled up a hefty share of the world’s low-tech manufacturing, China is now starting to stake a claim in the cutting-edge business of chip making. A host of start-up chip manufacturers, many of them backed by foreign investors and headed by Taiwanese executives, are flooding into the country and beginning to create the core of a domestic high-tech sector.

Beijing — which spent decades trying to build a tech sector through central planning — has welcomed the foreign executives’ expertise and investment, even amid growing tension between China and Taiwan over the island’s independence. China in the past several years also has begun emulating Taiwan in offering tax breaks and other incentives to encourage investment in its chip industry.

China’s government hopes a domestic semiconductor industry will wean the country from dependence on expensive foreign technology and someday challenge companies from the U.S. and other advanced economies. “We already make many of the world’s computers and cellular phones,” says Xu Xiaotian, an official at China’s Ministry of Information Industry who heads the China Semiconductor Industry Association. “This will be true in semiconductors as well.”

A thriving semiconductor industry could reshape China’s economy. Much of the nation’s economic boom so far has been fueled by cheap labor. Chip making, one of the world’s most capital-intensive industries, could help give rise to even more advanced businesses, such as chip design, and to the development of valuable home-grown intellectual property. Chip making was elemental in the creation of Japan as a high-tech powerhouse, and more recently Taiwan’s chip makers helped create a booming semiconductor-design industry.

Asia’s Richest Business Families

TIME writes:

Today, the majority of Asia’s publicly owned companies are still family controlledand the manner in which control is exercised can often be boiled down to one sentiment: a family business is the family’s business. For decades, boardroom positions and top jobs at such companies have been passed down from fathers to sons and daughters, not to professional managers outside the clan. Profits have been used to shore up a sister (or cousin) company, instead of going to shareholders. A banker eager to lend to family concerns from Kuala Lumpur to Kyoto has been happily able to dispense with the borrower’s balance sheet and P&L statement, which often concealed more than they disclosed. But he ignored at his peril the current blood pressure of the “Old Man” or the risk of antagonizing Wife No. 2 by getting too chummy with No. 1 Son.

But if you talk to the patriarchs and scions of the families that own Asia, they’ll tell you that it is no longer business as usual. For the past several years, they have increasingly come under fire for inefficient, outmoded and nepotistic practices. One of the outcomes of the 1997 Asian economic crisis was that the once revered taipan became closely associated with crony capitalism, and crony capitaliststhat cloistered business-government cabal that parcels out national economic spoils to a privileged fewgot a heavy dose of blame for the region’s collapse. Today, free trade, looser controls of capital flows, the information explosion and global competition are making it harder for family businesses to carry on like secret societies. Asians are more suspicious of concentrated economic power, no longer willing to take on faith the wisdom of their socioeconomic superiors. Shareholders are demanding “transparency” and genuine financial data, and that publicly owned companies be run for the benefit of all stakeholders, not just those who share genes. “The rules of the game have changed,” says Jamie Allen, secretary general of the Asian Corporate Governance Association in Hong Kong, a nonprofit organization that monitors the behavior of Asia’s company managers.

From India, TIME covers the Ambanis.

IT Tipping Point

Dana Blankenhorn finds the cost of software (Windows and Office for USD 546) greater than the cost of the hardware (USD 484). He writes: “Still, what if a PC didn’t run Office? What if it just ran, say, the Windows kernel, with a new class of hardware-based applications running on top of it? Then your home might, in fact, have 10 or 20 or more PCs inside it, networked, running the heat and the lights and the security and who-knows-what, with maybe one copy of XP and one of Office, as part of a central control. Perhaps this $600 in software might be rented, made a part of your online bill, just like the services that need attachment to the greater Internet on those other 10-20 PCs? The point is there are ways this can work. There are ways out of the box. First one to find them wins the future.”

Dana’s computer will cost him over USD 1,000. I see a world of thin clients (cheap USD 100 -150) devices, with all the software (Linux, OpenOffice, Firefox…) running on the server. This is the only way to bring down the total cost of ownership for the next billion of users. Adding a USD 50 fractional cost of server and USD 100 for software takes the cost to USD 300 (still 70% cheaper, with almost zero-maintenance). This is the next-generating IT infrastructure.

Storage in Mobile Devices

Kevin Werbach writes:

Mobile devices are about to become much more powerful, and storage is the reason. There have been three waves of evolution in portable storage, each of which has produced new product categories. The first development was affordable flash memory, allowing handhelds to carry hundreds of addresses and user-installed applications. That was enough to launch the PalmPilot, which created the market for personal digital assistants. The second wave was removable storage, using the Secure Digital, CompactFlash, or MemoryStick standards. Without the ability to pop data into and out of a device, we wouldn’t have digital cameras. And the same basic technology, sealed into devices, powered the first generation of handheld MP3 music players. The third wave of portable storage was tiny hard drives, beginning with the 1.8 inch-wide Hitachi drives in Apple’s iPod.

A new player called Cornice believes it can beat the big guys with a new architecture built from the ground up for portable storage. Cornice makes tiny hard drives with component price points below $70, allowing for $200 end-user devices with over a gigabyte of storage.

A mobile phone with storage isn’t just an interface for rich media, applications, and files located elsewhere — it’s a full-fledged computer. There will be little reason to carry a separate camera, organizer, or music player. With a few gigabytes of stage, a mobile phone becomes a multipurpose information appliance. For businesspeople, it becomes the tool for carrying Powerpoint presentations and word-processing files, rather than lugging around a laptop. For the consumer, it becomes the repository for photos, movies and music. You’ll send copies of that content to a network server for backup or to share it with your friends, but you’ll still carry copies with you everywhere.

The new wave of portable storage also means the doom of the consumer digital camera…We’ll also see much more powerful location-based services. A two-gigabyte microdrive can hold an entire continent worth of mapping data.

TECH TALK: Rajasthan Ruminations: Trip Impressions

Here are some impressions from my most recent trip:

  • Perhaps, the abiding memory of the trip was seeing the setting sun on the sand dunes outside Jaisalmer. I dont remember having seen a sunset like this in my life. As the sun went down, the colours in the sky were wondrous hues I have never seen before. (As an aside: we were about 60 kilometres from the Pakistan border.)
  • The roads of Rajasthan are a mixed bag. They are all kinds good, bad and the real ugly. Some roads were undivided with just a single lane, which means that every time a vehicle comes from the opposite direction, both have to shift a little to the left and off the road. Even some of the proper roads have bad patches in them. I guess one cannot just blame the state government for this we in India have still have not learnt to built roads that can endure.
  • I saw a lot of windmills outside Jaisalmer. This was a pleasant surprise. Ive always wondered why they do not use solar or wind power to generate electricity, so it was nice to see some steps being taken in this direction.
  • We passed Pokhran en route from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. Pokhran is the site where India has conducted its atomic and nuclear tests.
  • The Jaisalmer Fort has a city inside reminded me a bit of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings.
  • It was good to see computers in use at the Jain temple at Nakodaji for allocating rooms. Now, if only they would take reservation requests via the Internet.
  • There is a famous restaurant at Sirohi Baba Ramdev. The terrific food attracts people from tens of kilometres away. Just within the past year, they have added a well-constructed hotel in the same compound. Their business model of serving a mass market (from truck drivers to families, in well-designated areas) with excellent quality food at low prices, seems to be working wonders.
  • Entrepreneurship abounds whether it is Baba Ramdev or the hundreds of small sellers who came from all over to sell their wares at the mela (fair) at the Jaisalmer Desert Festival. It was fascinating to see the human spirit so alive. From bangles to saris, from pottery to handicrafts, they were all there.
  • Many of the temples we visited can definitely do with better maintenance. As I walked around the famous Dilwara Temples, I could not help thinking as to why we cannot maintain the place and its neighbourhood better (see the toilet outside the temple, and youll get an idea of what I mean).
  • A telling comment on the politics came from one of the persons I met when I asked him about the change in government (the BJP wrested power from the Congress in the elections held late last year): The new ministers are mostly all newcomers. So, now, they will look at filling their pockets first.
  • Water is still a big challenge. Across the state, the Indira Gandhi Canal has made differences to some areas, but with rains being scarce, water for what is still an agriculture-driven economy, is the big problem along with electricity, which, as one person put it, comes and goes.

    In many ways, Rajasthans story is that of India a glorious past, but a future handicapped by the short-sighted policies of our own leaders. The problems are complex, but at their core, there are a few. India is a country whose spirit has, for a long time, been held hostage by its own politicians and bureaucrats. There are signs of change, but it is coming very slowly. And unless we act quickly, another generation will have lost an opportunity for a better tomorrow.

    Tomorrow: Government and Rural Development

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