What will change everything? Ask a computer scientist

There are probably a lot of technology vendors who would be willing to answer the question, “What will change everything?” Wisely, John Brockman chose to ask a different set of experts.

Every year Brockman’s Web site Edge.org opens up what it calls the World Question Center, which poses thought-provoking queries to a varied group of academics, authors and scientists. Previous questions included “What have you changed your mind about?” and “What is your dangerous idea?” It has become a treasure trove of insights, an emporium of analysis.

There are no IT managers among the respondents this year either, but there are a few computer scientists, one of whom built upon something we’ve been hearing for some time. Roger Schank, who is also a psychologist and an author, discussed the concept of information that finds us, rather than individuals constantly searching for it on Google, in enterprise databases or their own personal hard drives. He rightly refers to information as “stories” rather than mere “content,” and describes the future as a return to just-in-time storytelling. This is also, he says, a return to wisdom.

“Wisdom depends upon goal directed prompts that say what to do when certain conditions are encountered. To put this another way, an archive of key strategic ideas about how to achieve goals under certain conditions is just the right resource to be interacting with enabling a good story to pop up when you need it,” he writes. “The solution involves goal-directed indexing.”

In other words, information can and should be organized according to what you want and need so that it can be cross-referenced the next time an example of what you need comes up. This is, in essence, what a lot of information repositories inside large businesses are supposed to do, but they either lack the requisite amount of information or it’s captured as a data point rather than a story that human beings will understand or remember.

Much of what the industry is focused on today involves linking these giant archives so that effort isn’t duplicated. Less time is spent on how information is rendered and delivered to users. Almost no time, as far as I’m aware, has been spent figuring out how we can monitor user behaviour to the point that machines can understand our goals and index information appropriately. Although Schank doesn’t use the term and might not see it this way, this is what real master data management (MDM) should look like.

“Having a ‘reminding machine’ that gets reminding of universal wisdom as needed will indeed change everything,” Schank says. “We will all become much more likely to profit from humanity's collective wisdom by having a computer at the ready to help us think.” By the time we’ve finished developing it, we’ll also no doubt have some great stories to tell.

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