Apple’s Siri: The only search engine you’ll need

Is Apple about to get into search? Probably not in the conventional sense, but Apple’s successful hire of Google’s John Giannandrea shows there’s a new kid in town.

Apple, John Giannandrea
Apple

Is Apple about to get into search? Probably not in the conventional sense, but the future of search depends on search agent’s mining local data across multiple devices — and Apple’s successful hire of Google’s chief of search and artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, shows there’s a new kid in town.

Search is dead, long live the new search

The writing’s been on the wall for a very long time.

Consumers are sick of being exposed to endless marketing. They don’t like their data being mined to provide advertisers and crafty political operators with tools they use to try to manipulate them.

They’ve read the stories about Cambridge Analytica, and they are beginning to grasp what’s sexy about privacy and the need to make sure the sites, services, and solutions providers they use are truly protecting the customer data they gather.

In other words, they want search services with new business models. Ad-blockers in Safari, the ultra-private Duck Duck Go search engine, and Mozilla’s Facebook Container Extension all reflect this emerging need.

[ Further reading: A.I. and speech advances bring virtual assistants to work ]

Search needs a new business plan

This growing understanding will (I predict) eventually create a consumer blowback against firms that have not protected customer data responsibly — we’ve already seen the impact of that shift hit the fan to blow down the value of Facebook stock.

The short-term gains made by those raiding such digital data thus far will be negated as this shift takes place. After all, trying to yield real-time, actionable data from truly anonymized data sets may be very difficult, but it’s still only a technical challenge — one that will eventually be solved, probably by a company whose business plan doesn’t depend on overt mining of such data.

The new search needs a new business plan.

Local is everything

The way people search is also changing. These days, 40 percent of search queries chase local information — local restaurants, businesses, services, and so on.

Within this context, location and decent online representation that matches local need, mood, and custom with the services people seek are the magic bullets for business success.

Getting to the top of local search results is becoming more and more important whatever the platform, and this is becoming an even bigger challenge as we look to the rapidly emerging market for voice-based search. “Hey, Siri. Where’s the plumber?”

Voice talks

Siri gets a lot of stick, but it’s an important service. There are already over a billion voice-based searches every month, and 60 percent of the people making these requests only began doing so in the past year.

As devices such as Apple’s HomePod or AirPod systems, or less private and secure systems from other manufacturers, flood the market you are not going to see voice search traffic shrink.

There are lots of challenges to this (I wrote more on this evolution here), but for the tech industry the challenge will be to ensure the local search results people get are as personalized and accurate to what customers need as the local services they find through those searches.

While it used to matter to make all the world’s information searchable, a big part of the future of search is the need to make local information accessible and personal.

That’s where artificial intelligence steps in

Let’s play a little game of let’s pretend. Here is the scenario:

You have all the public data for people and services in an area. When people ask for a specific service, you can identify all the local providers. But what else can you find? You will look through local reviews, news, and business websites to try to build a picture of how reliable a company is. You may have sent people to the company’s services before, but the cookies you embed in the search results timed out and you don’t really know what happened. Only the customer and the supplier know what happened. They are the only ones who need to know this.

AI, data analytics and personalization through privacy

Apple’s challenge here is to tie all these relationships up in such a way as to keep everybody personally private, while yielding actionable real-time insights that may help improve the search service and ensure it makes appropriate recommendations.

  • On a less private service, that would be easy as AI search assistants track the online relationships between service and searcher to assess the success of the deal. Easy, but not private and hard to extend in any wider context, as the actual intelligence used to achieve this is relatively basic — you can see everything, so you don’t have to intuit anything.
  • A more privacy-focused service will figure out how to assess all this information on a different basis without those kinds of insights. I imagine this might work by gathering differential privacy-protected data about any exchange into like families and analyzing a much larger database of similar interactions to identify the signs of a successful deal.

The aim could be that AI/Siri eventually becomes intuitive enough to understand not just basic things, such as what service a searcher wants, but also to handle more challenging criteria, such as which of the nearby service providers will be most able, available, and amenable to the request.

World-changing tech challenges

Anyone reading this far will already know I’m not a data scientist, but Apple’s newly recruited John Giannandrea is (well, he’s that and more).

"Our technology must be infused with the values we all hold dear," Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in an email as reported by the The New York Times.

“John shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal,” Cook said, announcing the hire.

It seems logical to think that figuring out how to deliver accurate, localized search results that are personalized to individual need while also being utterly private and anonymized may yet emerge to be the kind of world-changing technological challenge someone of Giannandrea's calibre craves.

If that's true, then it sure seems fortunate that Apple is willing to invest in both protecting customer privacy and providing customer convenience. 

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