When we watch movies on Netflix, the service serves up suggestions about movies related to those you liked.
When we make purchases on Amazon.com, we get recommendations of related or similar items, from books to consumer electronics devices.
These are passive versions of recommendation engines and this is happening now, but in the not-so-distant future, some see a more active recommendation engine.
We may look back on Google CEO Eric Schmidt's speech at TechCrunch Disrupt Sept. 28, 2010, as one of those watershed talks, certainly for the company, and maybe for the Internet industry many of us toil in. Or we may look at it as stating the obvious.
Disrupt was where Schmidt introduced Google's informal "autonomous search" plans for the future. In covering the talk, I wrote in eWEEK:
"Google will conduct searches for users without them having to manually conduct searches. As an example, Schmidt said he could be walking down the streets of San Francisco and receive information about the places around him on his mobile phone without having to click any buttons."
""Think of it as a serendipity engine," Schmidt said. "Think of it as a new way of thinking about traditional text search where you don't even have to type.""
This "augmented version of humanity," he described is essentially a recommendation engine that suggests places, landmarks, food and merchandise we might be interested in, inferred from users' preferences parsed from our collective searches.
In another example from Schmidt, Google's search engine will interpret a query such as "What's the weather like?" to mean that a searcher wants to know whether or not he needs to wear a raincoat or water the plants.
Our mobile phones will chirp, ring, beep or vibrate with suggestions to visit places, get local deals and pop in stores to take advantage of those offers. Google's Hotpot recommendation service can be enhanced to do this.
What Google calls autonomous, serendipitous search we may also call active recommendations. And they are on their way.
Google's Schmidt also surprised people at the Web 2.0 Summit Nov. 15 when he revealed that Google is adding near field communications chips paired with Android 2.3 for future mobile phones. Imagine mobile payments and other enabling signals from the added sensors in the phones.
Imagine recommendations paired with NFC- enabled gadgets and devices beyond the mobile phone to help users make more informed decisions.
Google's Google Maps creator and geolocation whiz John Hanke, for example, told me he sees augmented reality augmenting Google's current local search technologies. Imagine Google-powered glasses that add the browser atop real-world views.
He didn't get into specifics about what Google would do, but he likes Layar, so you can imagine Google applying such technology to Street View imagery all of the time.
The possibilities are exciting, but Joel Delman, Los Angeles design director for Product Development Technologies, added a dash of caution to the mix in an article published in Forbes Nov. 24.
While he appreciates all of the recommendations and signals and Web-enabled gadgets swirling around us, Delman noted: "Turning over our decision-making to technology has a price, in that delegation tends to disengage us from important aspects of our daily lives."
Like thinking for ourselves. Perhaps Nicholas Carr is onto something, as Delman noted:
"The other day I tried to interest my 5-year-old son in a map of the United States, pointing out the relationship between our home state of California, the Pacific Ocean to the west, Oregon and Washington up north; his interest was marginal at best. When I asked why, his response really made me sit back and think for a moment. ... "Who needs a map? Your car always tells us how to get where we want to go!" Now that's a technological side effect we should all think long and hard about."
He's right, of course, but this is not a problem of clear implications. For example, relying on the GPS is fine ... until it ceases working or sends people in the wrong direction, or off a cliff.
We're at an exciting, but fledgling stage in Internet tech. We want to write artificial intelligence apps that reason like humans, and pair with them with NFC devices, but we also need to ensure these technologies account for contingencies.
Right now, we're at the equation A + B = X; we need to narrow the probability of failure to reach A + B = C. Delman proposes an easy "off" switch for users to say "no" when they want to. That's a start, but we need more assurance.
What Google and others working on these technologies need to do is assign probability experts whose sole purpose is to grok the logical implications of recommendations and the Internet of Things.
The future of the Internet depends on it.