Social data for search giants

I had a good conversation this afternoon with a friend who works at Google, and we touched on ideas about how the world of search and the world of social might collide.


We agreed that no one’s going to beat the established players in search, and if/when an entrant does beat Google, it will be with a disruptive technology that uses a very different method of information discovery. Executives at Google have all read Innovator’s Dilemma and they are rightly concerned that real-time search and social search (and soon, geotagging) could represent this disruptive technology within search. The company is focused on how those movements might interact with search and have experimented with including real-time content in search results.


I’ve got several ideas on how real-time and social data could affect search, in particular, the conversation reminded of an email chain I had contributed to this summer; I’ve pasted my bit below:


Here’s a more complete description of the search idea I mentioned to you today.  Aside from some of the interesting strategies available to the big 3 search providers, I think Facebook has an opportunity to play an interesting role in search by offering a service adding social data to search results.


Facebook could offer a Facebook Connect implementation specifically for search engines that allowed them to check URLs against a database of friend’s posted links.  This would allow the search engine to enhance relevancy. Think of it like this (forgive the quick/ugly mockup):


This could help Facebook move the needle on three strategic goals: increase engagement, increase ubiquity of graph availability (connect), and user growth.
\n- Offers a quick/easy way to gain influence in a new area of user’s habits, namely search.
\n- Easily the biggest Connect implementation to date if done with Bing, Yahoo, or Google. Huge legitimacy marker for Connect’s capabilities.
\n- It offers a large, visible step towards FB becoming ubiquitous, which would have a positive effect on new user signups.


It would be great to make a launch partner of a top-notch engine (Bing or Google). Biggest problem would probably be building something that served results fast enough for Search Engines to actually use.  Only real question I can come up with is whether Facebook would be willing to be part of a search solution of companies they see as competitive (Google specifically) – IMO, the benefits laid out above outweigh the costs of propping up a future competitor’s current solution.


Bottom line: John Borthwick sees an oncoming verticalization of search; my answer to Borthwick’s claim is the part of my argument I hold most tenatively, but, for most people, I believe that content isn’t interesting just because it is now, social, or nearby; our information discovery platforms must still apply good filtering and context to it’s content/results to meet a user’s needs. Anderson’s Vanishing Point Theory alone isn’t enough to build a universally interesting news application — one has to apply other metrics to judge it’s interest to a reader. Innovator’s Dilemma has shown us that the disruptive technology will get there soon enough (Individual services building upon their success with consumers who care a lot about now/social/nearby and getting better and better at relevance for the mass market), but it’s also shown that large organizations can adapt to disruptive technology by either buying a smaller organization that’s kept independent and encouraged to continue growth (Youtube, attempted with Twitter) or by pushing an corporate shift despite likely stiff internal/organizational resistance. Google failed to buy twitter, therefore it has to push forward with the latter option.


Using the type of UI displayed in the rough mockup I included in the email (link), Google could add social (or realtime or location) data as a contextual meta-layer. I can tell that Google is already thinking of this meta-layer, because it’s exactly the layer that sidewiki is writing to (conversations occuring about information found at a website address). But, Google has misstepped with Sidewiki by trying to own the input. Our conversations are fractured, and occur all across the web, Google should instead focus on indexing and storing data from other services (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and using that information to display that content as a meta-layer on top of search results and/or to reorder search results. Luckily for the goog, they’ve got some experience with indexing and displaying content from disparate locations.


This idea is complimentary to my opinion about being a great asset for a search engine to pickup.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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