Consider the following scenario.

In 2035 a heinous criminal escapes in the city of Dallas, Texas and the local police department acquires a court order to conduct a thorough search of the metro area. Within 15 minutes a fleet of twelve surveillance drones is deployed to begin an ultra high-res flyover.

Because of exponential growth of processing power, storage, and bandwidth, each drone is capable of scanning with micro particle-level resolution from their 10,000-foot vantage point, seeing through walls made of concrete and steel, identifying every individual, object, animal, insect, and even a few airborne virus along the way.

These drones are voracious data gathering machines, transmitting super-dense information streams to ground stations at the rate of over one petabyte a minute for final processing.

Within 30 minutes the dangerous criminal is located and a team is sent out to apprehend him. At the same time over 6,000 other people, objects, and situations are red-flagged for further investigation, each requiring judicial review before further action can be taken.

Any matters that pose an immediate danger to public health take top priority. People with both unknown and highly contagious diseases are sent to a medical team for further review. Location of dangerous insects, animals, tripping hazards, unstable objects, and failing infrastructure are referred to City departments best equipped to handle them.

The vast majority of red-flagged issues are easily dealt with, posing little argument over whether local government is overstepping its authority.

However, there are also more than a few matters not so easily resolved. Teenage runaways, domestic violence, in-home vandalism, possession of stolen goods, and an assortment of minor legal violations all fall into a gray area where further action may or may not be warranted.

First, is this a realistic scenario? And second, is this the kind of world we want to live in?

Rethinking Our Search Perspective

Benoit Mandelbrot, a Polish mathematician who lived from 1924-2010, was best known as the “father of fractal geometry.” His impressive resume included stints as the Sterling Professor of Mathematical Sciences, Emeritus at Yale University; IBM Fellow at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center; and Battelle Fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

At one point in his career, Mandelbrot was asked the simple question, “What’s the distance around a lake?”

He responded by saying, “It depends on your perspective,” and went on to explain.

Viewing a lake from 100,000 feet, the lake has a very defined distance, easily measurable. As the altitude decreases, an observer will begin to take note of bays, inlets, and other shoreline formations making the distance around the lake longer.

Moving closer an observer will begin to notice that the shoreline is filled with rocks and trees, and nearing the ground, things like pebbles, plants, and dirt clumps come into view, making the length still longer.

Even resting on the ground, the journey is not over. Once individual grains of sand and pieces of debris become visible, we move into microscopic particles where the distance involves measuring around individual atoms and molecules.

Because of this growing level of detail, the distance around a lake approaches infinity.

The Mandelbrot perspective has far reaching implications. As we develop search engines for super tiny particles, we will also redefine our physical world in countless other ways.

Next Generation Search Tools

Online search technology has framed much of our thinking around our ability to find things. In general, if it’s not digital and online, it’s not findable.

However tools like Google Glass and flying drones add many more dimensions to existing search algorithms.

In the near-term future most advances will be focused on furthering our understanding of the inquiry-results relationship, making it more personal so our inquiries don’t need to be so exacting and precise to get the answers we’re looking for. According to Google Senior VP and Fellow Amit Singhal:

  • Search will become far more personal, and Google will be able to know what you’re looking for based on who you are.
  • Search engines will not only find, but interpret what they find by generating their own algorithms.
  • Advances in artificial intelligence and natural language understanding will result in deeper descriptions and understanding of web pages.
  • Answers, not links, will become more prevalent.
  • Search will do things, rather than simply suggest things.
  • Our digital lives will be combined into one searchable platform.

Google Glass Search

Google Glass will begin to radically change search technology, presenting visual overlays that place the location of objects within your field of view. This will take us far beyond finding restaurants on Yelp or making GPS directions more understandable.

Permanent buildings, structures, roads, and geographical formations will create something akin to a wireframe on which all other data will be layered.

If we search for lost objects in our home or office, such as lost keys, wallet, or book, search results will be readily available to us individually based on what Glass recorded from previous house-scans.

Even missing child requests like, “Where’s Mikey?” will enable us to scan surrounding neighborhoods using a variety of security camera and smartphone inputs to yield personalized results for known family members.

However, systems like this will have built-in “stalker preventers” to limit unwanted attention by paparazzi, nosey bloggers, and other unwanted stalkers. Certainly these won’t be easy limits to define, but they will be necessary restrictions for future living.

Spidering the Physical World with Drones

The opening scenario for this article was intended to present a realistic vision of the future where flying drones replace web crawlers as the data-gathering tools of choice for searching our physical surroundings. And yes, this will be very controversial.

Keep in mind that virtually nothing on the Internet was findable until web crawlers made it so. Similarly, findabilty in the physical world will take a quantum leap forward once we unleash the drone equivalent of web crawlers to spider our physical surroundings.

Many uses for this technology, however, won’t be controversial. They will instead be welcomed with open arms. Here are a few examples:

  • Search and rescue in mountains, oceans, deserts, and remote areas.
  • Crop scans by farmers to assess level of weed, fungus, disease, or insect infestation.
  • Forest scans by State Forestry Departs to research changes in plant and animal activity.
  • Ocean scans to assess impact of fishing activity, placing designated “over-fished” areas off limits for a designated recovery period.
  • Disease trackers to scan for early-stage contagions, warning health officials of possible outbreaks.
  • Scanning infrastructure like bridges, roads, and tunnels for failure points and necessary repairs.

In much the same way we find ourselves wrestling with online privacy issues today, we will be wrestling with far more complex privacy issues in the future.

Final Thoughts

Search technology will become far more sophisticated in the future. Soon we will be able to search on a variety of attributes like smells, tastes, harmonic vibration, texture, specific gravity, and barometric pressure.

Eventually, search engines will have the capability of finding virtually anything in either the digital or physical world.

Each step we take in this direction will be viewed as further intrusion on the sacred ground of privacy, and as a result, a host of masking and cloaking technologies will begin to appear on the market.

Signal jammers, light wave disrupters, and other forms of digital camouflaging will serve as a short-term substitute for public policy failures.

Living in a super transparent society brings with it and equal number of positive and negative aspects, but we won’t know where to draw the line on policy matters until we’ve experienced it for ourselves.

In the process we will effectively be rewriting the rules for humanity – our value systems, our expectations, and all the synaptic firings that define us as humans. Can we possibly be who we think we should be?

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything




14 Responses to “Search Engines for the Physical World: The Future of Search Technology in an Increasingly Transparent World”

Comments List

  1. Ay Bee

    Q: First, is this a realistic scenario? A: This is the kind of future scenario that people who desire more power, influence or control over others come up with! Q: And second, is this the kind of world we want to live in? A: Definitely not! It predisposes that the future is going to be more technologically pervasive, more criminal oriented and less humanistic. If we come to accept such scenarios as inevitable, then surely we have lost a far more beneficial vision - one where humanity moves beyond 'self' and exists with the understanding that we are all part of a civilized, global community.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      To Ay Bee, Thanks for your input, but a couple quick questions. Do you see this as being the path we are currently on? (Everything I see tells me it is.) And second, if this is not the preferred direction, how do we change it? In other words, how do we move the train onto a different set of tracks? Tom
    • <a href='http://none' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Tabitha "Starks"</a>

      Have you ever read the things that you give your Facebook permission to do? And they can do it without you knowing it? Our privacy in this world is already slipping away from us by technology and the permission that our ignorance of the app actually gives it unknowingly just for instance the Facebook app asks for and people give it permission to : add or modify calendar appointments and send invites without your knowledge read calendar events and confidential information, take pictures and videos, find accounts on your device and modify contacts read your contacts, get your approximate location and your GPS exact location, record audio without your knowledge, read your phone's status and identity, read your text messages or SMS messages, read your SD card contents, modify or delete SD card contents, activity recognition, download files without notification, retrieve running apps you may have forgotten to close, prevent your phone from sleeping, and those are just some of the things that you give Facebook permission to go through and do it's all just in the fine print you just have to read it but really who in this world nowadays to actually take a few seconds of their precious time to get to know the app they are using and what they are giving it permission to do anymore? Practically no one and to think just within the past 3 years an estimated 450 billion people downloaded the app on to their phone for their privacy to be unknowingly taken away. Try to swallow that piece of information and that's just Facebook you never know what your giving permission for these apps to do when you download them there is no such thing as privacy anymore
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Tom Higley</a>

    There does seem to be a sort of inevitability to the march of technology. Which advances in technology - once discovered, developed and made affordable - have we been willing and able to eschew? It seems if we can do it, we will do it. (And while the "we" may not include you or me, it will probably include private corporations, governments and NGOs.) I have little doubt that much of the physical world can and will be mapped and made searchable. But I worry that most criminal activity will have been prevented before it ever happens. (Yes, I said "worry.") We can now use technology to stop many crimes before they occur. Should we? Do we understand the true cost of such an approach? I don't believe we do. The James Madison quote at the beginning of this article in the Atlantic serves as an apt warning: At the moment some of these masking and cloaking technologies you mention may be readily available and legal. But based on developments since 9/11, I suspect that in the future you've described, most governments will outlaw any and all communications that cannot be monitored. The risks to the state are just too great to permit the kinds of freedoms and protections against tyranny that were originally built into the Constitution. On a related note: do for profit US corporations worry that the NSA's surveillance - and its applicability to communications that include a foreign person - will necessarily also include US "persons" that are corporations? A huge number of US corporations (persons) communicate regularly with foreign persons. If those communications are now swept into the NSA's data store, are they perhaps more vulnerable than before to hackers - even hackers that have corporate espionage as their motive?
    • FuturistSpeaker

      To Tom Higley, Thanks for referring us to this quote: "There are more instance of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." -- James Madison, 1788 The one piece we may want to add is that the encroachments are not just by those in power, but by technology, evolving political systems, and the constant erosion of "political will" to do something about a problem. Highly paid smart people will always make it sound ok. The reality will always be something else. Thomas Frey
  3. Ay Bee

    Q: Do you see this as being the path we are currently on? (Everything I see tells me it is.) A: No. The future drone system as described is only one path of many. It really depends on what path we choose to take (create) or, which one we're given! The higher the % of acceptance, the more likely a proposed outcome will be realized. We can change it by creating, promoting and adopting alternatives. The scenario described is, as of this time, NOT a reality and only a proposed futurism and can therefore be altered. It really is just a promotion of a potentiality. Q: If this is not the preferred direction, how do we change it? In other words, how do we move the train onto a different set of tracks? With respect to moving 'the train onto a different set of tracks' that depends on your perception of the train we are travelling in. What are the true advantages of such a future? Is such a reality of true benefit to humanity? Perhaps the system as described could be deployed in certain regions of the world and used to protect various species. For example, such a drone system could be used to protect elephants from being killed in the wild. Or, serve to protect our oceans from overfishing. Or, as is the case in Australia, be used to identify and track illegal boats from entering Australian waters. The uses for such a technology could be of immense benefit to humanity and the animals of this planet rather than as an all-seeing, pervasive and somewhat frightening mass surveillance system.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Ay Bee, Thanks for your followup comments. You're right, we haven't reached this point yet, but all the incentives are in place for us to go there. The way I see it, people will be willing to pay for producing that level of data. They will be willing to access it. And the information itself will be fodder for literally millions of startups who are able to manipulate this information in new and different ways, and create marketable products from it. As you pointed out, there are many positive aspects for putting this level of data to good use. But the same tracking system used to spot poachers, can also be used to track political rivals or "corporate enemies" around the world. The question we should all be asking is how to leverage positive uses without also attracting the negative ones? What types of laws, regulations, policies, or technical limitations can we build in to prevent wrongful uses? Thomas Frey
  4. Jay Swartz

    Tom, Interesting as usual. IMHO, this sort of surveillance use case (drones) will be addressed by the internet of things long before 2035. Surveillance cameras alone will proliferate to the point where every area where people congregate or travel will have a 24/7 visual digital record. The other consideration is the sensor loading of the population. Today, the cell phone is the primary sensor we carry around with us and the coverage is increasing every day (including in undeveloped countries!). During the next two decades we are likely to be carrying additional sensors (e.g., health and specialized enhanced reality sensors). A sensor scan will be able to isolate the exact location of every individual in the scan area (food for thought: if you have a record of everyone's phone number, you can do that today). During the next two decades, new internet things will be developed and deployed that will inform such a use case far more quickly and accurately than a fleet of drones, no matter how sophisticated. This said, I could see drones being used in less densely populated areas, assuming 20 years of advances in satellite sensing don't obviate the need. As to the deeper question of loss of privacy; we crossed that line long ago. All of our personal histories have already been woven permanently into the digital history of humanity. As ever more of the actions of our daily lives become digitized, the digital record of the actions of each and every person become more complete. A major new bit is the advance of analytic technologies for handling large volumes of information. Once opaque data streams can now be examined for subtle correlations. And these technologies are advancing at an exponential rate, driven by collaborative advances in techniques (Kaggle et al), the flourishing growth of corpora and the accelerating improvements in processing power. To get some insight on just how little privacy we have now, and the impact of new technologies, you should read the recent Time Magazine article on surveillance:
  5. williama

    During the next two decades we are likely to be carrying additional sensors (e.g., health and specialized enhanced reality sensors). A sensor scan will be able to isolate the exact location of every individual in the scan area (food for thought: if you have a record of everyone’s phone number, you can do that today). Google
  6. Diego(Uruguay)

    Nice page! Here is my opinion: In J.K. Rowling's magic world (sorry if this is a somewhat childish example :) people can instantly travel big distances by teleportation or "apparition". But they cannot normally travel inside each other's houses, becouse homes and other special buildings are protected by "anti-apparition" devices. In our "real world", I believe that these new technologies will also bring with them some kind of masking or cloaking, as a way of protecting privacy.

Leave a Reply