March 04, 2005

Stop him before he invents again

A brief piece in this month's Technology Review chilled me to the bone:

Imagine picking up a novel at a bookstore, and instantly your cell phone receives a text message containing your friends opinions of the book, as well as suggestions for films you might enjoy.

Media Lab doctoral candidate Hugo Liu is creating just such a system, called Ambient Semantics: a sensor embedded in a ring or wristwatch will read a radio frequency identification tag affixed to an object; the system will then search a database for information about the object and, on the basis of the wearers interests, send pertinent data as well as recommendations to his or her cell phone or PDA.

Ambient spam is more like it. I don't want to seem like an antitechnology sort of person, but the day that picking up a novel in a bookstore causes my cell phone to ring with a text message will be the day that I give up either bookstores or cell phones.

Ambient Semantics is powered by a database Liu built by gleaning information from Web pages, online communities, and social networks. The database, comprising some two million relationships between 100,000 items, can be used to predict personal preferences. For example, if a person likes Led Zeppelin, the database might indicate that she would also like the film School of Rock.

I see, it's like turning your real-world shopping over to's feeble-minded model of personality. Future plans include putting your social life into the cyber-hands of a psychotic cruise line social director:

Liu says the next step for the system is feedback during personal interactions. Eventually, he says, when two strangers shake hands, their sensor devices will display their common interests and mutual friends, preventing missed opportunities.

This leads towards one of the stock characters encountered in dystopian science fiction novels, the animated billboard with the personality of a streetwalker or a used car salesman. These are generally backgrounded as routine annoyances of future life. But Mr. Liu's invention could spark a whole new back-to-nature movement.

I'm afraid that steering one Media Lab grad student in more reasonable directions would not help -- NTT's RedTacton technology is designed for exactly this sort of thing. (NTT site here, with sample applications starting here). Seriously, there are a lot of neat possibilities for this as well as now-conventional wireless technologies, but somehow I have a feeling that for every application I like, there are going to be several that I don't.

[Update 3/5/2005: Benoit Essiambre emailed:

The tech review article dumbed down his research so much that I can understand your concerns. Having your cell phone ring in the common circumstances described would be very irritating. However Liu's specialty is NLP. Looking at his website I am convinced that the choice of cell phone as an example medium was done because it is an example that concretizes the theory to a gadget a layperson can relate to. All the appeal of the system is in the powerful common sense semantic analysis going on in the background. Liu's specialty is natural language processing. His inclination towards art ( and his work based on common sense knowledge ( makes me think he could turn his system into something appealing.

I hope it was clear that I was talking in a joking way about the intrusive tendency of communications technologies, and not really about Liu at all. And Benoit may well be right about the fault in this case being as much in the brief journalistic write-up as in the underlying work. However, when you combine an attempt to "give modern devices common sense" so that they can "reason about the world as intimately as people do" with an attempt to "postulate things about identity and the Self, as reflected in the social fabric of the online world" it would be naive not to recognize that this capability is most likely to be used not only for "simplifying and humanizing the technology and tools of the digital age", but also to sell us stuff. If the cell-phone-in-the-bookstore example was the journalist's invention rather than Liu's, it was an obvious and appropriate extrapolation.

Let me make it clear that I'm not against merchandising. I like advertising. But I'm not a big fan of spam, and a world full of networked objects engaged in common-sense reasoning about my goals, preferences, social networks and personal history is going to be a world full of spambots.

The idea of networked "do what I mean" technology embedded in everyday objects also raises its own reasons for concern, marketing misuses aside. But that's a topic for another post. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 4, 2005 06:25 PM