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How cell phones will replace learning

o Mike Elgan
06.06.2009 kl 08:12 |

The day is coming when the cell phone will be the dominant tool for accessing information. Announcements this week about Microsoft's Bing 411 and the Palm Pre suggest we're getting there fast, write columnist Mike Elgan.


"Can you fly that thing?" Neo asks Trinity in the original Matrix movie, referring to a nearby military helicopter. "Not yet," she replies. Then she whips out her cell phone, hits speed-dial and says, "Tank, I need a pilot program for a B-212 helicopter. Hurry!" Tank pushes a few buttons and starts downloading skill and knowledge into Trinity's brain. Seconds later, Trinity is flying like a pro.

The idea of using a cell phone for prosthetic knowledge is precisely where we're headed. In fact, we're getting there fast.

Ever leave your house to enjoy dinner and a movie without knowing which movie or theater? I do it all the time. I know I'll be able to whip out my cell phone like Trinity and punch up that missing bit of knowledge anytime I want. I'm happy to be ignorant about something because the phone replaces the need to learn. I've outsourced the responsibility for that knowledge from my brain to my phone.

The only difference between my movies and Trinity's helicopter is the complexity of the information and the number of steps between curiosity and the possession of knowledge. But the "idea" of the cell phone as the ultimate answer machine or knowledge engine is already here. Every new advancement will take us from where we are now to where Trinity was in The Matrix.

Two such advancements happened this week. The first is Microsoft's introduction of Bing 411. A competitor to GOOG-411, the free service offers an enormous amount of information via voice phone call. Put Bing 411's phone number - (800) 246-4411 - into your speed dial. Instead of Tank answering with "Operator," you instead hear a recorded computer voice guiding you through the options. Though it's a nationwide number, it gives you local information. You can get audio turn-by-turn directions, find out about traffic conditions, get the weather, find out what movies are playing, and connect to any business. You can teach it where you work and where you live, so in future you can say "work" and "home" and it knows exactly what you're talking about.

The second step this week toward prosthetic knowledge cell phones is the introduction of the Palm Pre. The new phone operating system, called WebOS, offers a feature called Universal Search. To use it, simply pick up the phone and start typing. Press the first letter, then the second, and already the phone starts finding contacts, appointments, notes and other data on the phone that start with the letters you typed.

Once the combination of letters is beyond what is in the phone's storage, the Pre shows you four options: Google, Maps, Wikipedia and Twitter. Press one, and you're searching that service. The reason this is an advancement is that the steps have been reduced to three: 1. Type query; 2. Pick search engine; and 3. Choose result. Compare this with the number of steps on an iPhone: 1. Press Safari icon; 2. Press open-book icon in browser; 3. Press Google option; 4. Press search bar; 5. Type query; 6. Press Go; and 7. Choose result. The Palm Pre requires three steps, the iPhone seven.

I know, I know. These hardly seem like giant steps toward mentally downloadable knowledge. But consider the combination of such capabilities with the coming Web 3.0.

You've probably heard the term Web 3.0, but like everyone else are not sure what it is, or even if it's some meaningless marketing term. Nearly everyone who speaks about Web 3.0 talks about what it means for developers, content providers and search engine companies. They toss around terms like the "semantic Web" and "linked data." I'm going to ignore that whole conversation and just tell you what it means for users.

In a nutshell, the Web 3.0 will function a little bit more like a human being. It will "understand" how facts and ideas are connected. And it will also "understand" what you're looking for, and take your own particular context, needs and preferences into account. Your interaction with the Web will "feel" less like the operation of a machine and more like interaction with another human being.

So, for example, you'll be able to query the Google of the Future with questions like, "where should we go for dinner?" Instead of returning a list of restaurant reviews and listings, it will consider your location, the weather, current traffic, what you had last night, your previous preferences, the opinions of your preferred restaurant critics and more. It will consider a huge variety of sources and will produce, say, three specific restaurants -- all great choices, all things considered -- literally all things considered.

Sounds simple, but there's a lot going on here. First, this Web of the Future speaks English. It knows what the sentence "where should we go for dinner?" means, and gives a meaningful reply. Second, it's customized to your specific tastes, interests and schedule. Third, it pulls options for consideration from every imaginable source, from Zagat's Guide to today's Food section in the paper to your best friend's blog. And, finally, it's aware of contextual factors - what's happening right now (weather, traffic, etc.).

The Web 3.0 isn't just about food, either. It's about everything. You can ask it, "who played 'Trinity' in The Matrix?"; "where should I get my surfboard repaired"; or "what causes allergies?" And you'll be able to make requests: "Book me the cheapest flight to New York next Thursday"; "Send flowers to my wife on her birthday"; or "Let me know when the Matrix 4 trailer hits the Web."

In other words, the Internet becomes your personal assistant, the ultimate concierge, adviser, informant and spy.

So what does all this have to do with Microsoft' Bing 411 and the Palm Pre? Everything. These two announcements bring the use of cell phones closer to becoming prosthetic knowledge. Just imagine if the Web 3.0 I described were available today, and accessible via Bing 411 or Palm Pre's Universal Search. If you can imagine that, you'll envision just a tiny glimpse of what's coming in just a few years. (Of course, by then, everything will be much more powerful.)

All trends, including the improvement of voice-recognition services like Bing 411 and search tools like Palm Pre's Universal Search, plus the Web 3.0, add up to cell phones, not PCs, becoming the dominant tool we use for accessing knowledge of any kind.

Whenever anyone asks, "Do you know...?" You'll already be reaching for your phone before giving the Trinity reply: "Not yet."

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Keywords: Telecommunication  Internet  Networking  Consumer Electronics  
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