As I said in my last column, disambiguating intent is the holy grail of search. John Battelle called search the “database of intentions.” While technically correct, right now those intentions are only vaguely understood. The breadth and complexity of a concept is squeezed into the restrictive container of a keyword query, so the quest for search is to gain another dimension of understanding beyond the query.
Last week, we talked to Mike Savtek about Baynote’s approach, looking at the traffic patterns on sites and comparing it with your own to power a recommendation engine similar to Amazon’s. The theory driving Baynote’s borrows from the emergence of optimization from organic activity seen in Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence, and the idea that two heads, or better yet, several heads, are better than one. This is the theme James Surowiecki explored in the Wisdom of Crowds.
One of the more interesting approaches I’ve seen to disambiguation is the one taken by Vortex DNA. Kaila Colbin had pinged me a number of times saying I should take a closer look, and then I had the chance to chat with John Hart, their VP of Business Development, at an industry event in Utah. I followed up with an interview with Branton Kenton-Dau, a director and the man behind the technology.
Vortex DNA’s approach is ambitious, to say the least. They’re mapping the Internet Genome, looking for the genetic codes of content and then using your own personal values as a marker to match you to the right online “gene.” In talking to Branton, the conversation at many times veered into unusual directions for an interview on a new internet technology, as we debated intentional vs inherent views of human nature, beliefs and personal values, and a codifying of the content of the web based on principles and values. Sound confusing? Well, it is, a little. I’ll let Branton describe VortexDNA’s approach:
“For us, it probably would go back to the human genome project itself, where we initiated as a society this project to map our human DNA. And the great vision around that was that once we knew what our physical DNA was like we would be able to define the characteristics of your world and in particular help prevent serious illnesses. And one of the outcomes of that project, was actually we found that there weren’t enough genes. We found too few genes to map the 100,000 chemical pathways of our body; and that since then, where science is taken us is that it’s demonstrated that our physical DNA actually doesn’t determine who we are, but the whole science of epigenetics is saying actually it’s our environment, you know what we eat and particularly what we believe about ourselves which determines our propensity to be ill, to be healthy, to be successful or not. So, actually our belief system is a major impact in determining who we are, and what is exciting about that is basically it represents a shift for us as a society from the very deterministic view of ourselves; that we are basically physical machines. Either we’re broken or not, depending on what our parents gave us, to the idea that we are actually beings that are creating our own lives with much more build out of what we believe about ourselves at any moment and any time. That’s exciting because what we believe about ourselves can obviously be changed. And basically what VortexDNA is is a technology that came out of the insight that the way we structure our beliefs is governed by the mathematics of complex systems. What that means is that we know the structure of our beliefs, and because of that we can then map out the structure of our intentional DNA, the intentions behind the world we create, and that’s basically the breakthrough, the technology. It provides a map of the way people organize who they are, literally who they are, through their belief systems. And out of that, then comes the opportunity to create a better world for yourself whether that’s finding your best life partner or finding better research results or finding better car insurance rates because your particular belief system has a low propensity for accidents. It actually touches every part of your life, because we are actually mapping human characteristics. The true genome, if you like, based upon the new science.
It’s a pretty lofty goal for an Internet technology, but it’s really no less than unraveling the mystery of human intent and building an algorithm from it. So, how does VortexDNA do it? Right now, the process begins with you filling out a questionnaire that allows the technology to learn more about you and your personal beliefs. Then, it uses this as an additional layer of disambiguation over what Google or Yahoo might be doing on their side. Branton explains further:
There are two parts to that. One is that I feel we are very respectful of what Google and Yahoo, and their analysis in the whole semantic web push, are doing in terms of trying to make the web more relevant to people and we do believe our technology is complementary to those approaches. We don’t believe we are competing with any of those and, as you say, it’s overlay, it’s additive to those. Having said that, we are really completely different to that because, it’s actually the structure, the pattern, the way your beliefs are organized that we are interested in, and what that means is that we actually turn your answers to your questionnaire, what you click on, into just a set of numbers. There are seven numbers that correspond to different aspects of that pattern of organization, that makes up your intentionality. And so, really when you are going around, what we are doing is as you click on something, we will compare your number, it might be 7632416 say, with the numbers that are held against that link. So, what we are doing is we are comparing numbers, we don’t know whether you’ve gone to a Nazi site or whether you are looking for apple pie recipes. We have absolutely no idea and maintain no record of where you’ve been, in all those sites. So when your genome is updated, because you’ve gone to this site, we might update your genome because you’ve been to that site to change one of your digits in one way, by one point or so, then that digit could be changed from any site you ; the news or Yahoo! or whatever.
For me, the whole idea of sharing something as intimate as my personal beliefs spooked me a little. I asked Branton if this is an issue they’ve been faced with.
I think some people never think about it. We get up in the morning, brush our teeth and go to work and make our daily bread. Sometimes we don’t have time to think at all, “why am I here?”, and when you ask the question, “what’s your purpose in life?” Well that’s a pretty profound question. What we found is that some people don’t fill in (the questionnaire) correctly or too quickly or they just answer anything, they don’t really think about it deeply and therefore, because noise goes in, they just get noise out. That’s where over the course of last year we actually developed what we call this idealized genome. We can just infer your genome by what you click on. We think that’s a much better way, and we can do that for instance, by just playing a game. We can show some images, pick some of your favorites, we can infer your genome that way. So, lot’s of more, less mentally taxing and more fun ways that we can get you started in creating your genome, your profile, which we think would work a lot better.
Of course, anything that tracks usage raises privacy concerns. VortexDNA is unique in that everything is stripped of identifiable data and reduced to a simple 7 digit code. No personal data is stored.
So, what makes us really truly unique with this approach, which we think is really important, is that we absolutely protect your privacy because we do not track your searches in any shape or form because we are just adding or subtracting numbers from that seven digit identifier. So it makes no difference to us, and I think that’s a really powerful thing, because you know there is concern with people for what information people hold on them and all we hold is a seven digit number, and you could be anywhere, it could have been Walt Disney Movies, it could have been finding out about the players in your favorite football team, it makes no difference to us. So we can’t tell even if a law enforcement agencies came to us, and asked to us, “hey, where has Gord been”, we would have no idea, we could not tell them.
It’s an intriguing approach. Personally, as a huge fan of both Jim Collins and Stephen Covey, personal beliefs and core values make up a large part of both my personal ideology and my company’s core philosophy. Branton was preaching to the converted in this case. But the cynic in me wonders just how applicable this is to online relevancy.
I think that the answer to that is that we don’t know yet. I think that we are at very early stages of really what is the science of human intention, I mean, that’s really what’s it about. And what I can share with you is that we validated the technology last year against Google search results, and that’s where we were able to show that we can improve Google’s page rank by up to 14% which would improve it by a 3% improvement in click rates. And, what that seems to be saying to us is (it does help), and that’s across the board, people obviously searching for anything and everything that’s possible on the web, we were analyzing that data. We haven’t been able break that down to say whether or not if you’re hunting for a job, we are able to provide better recommendations than when you are looking for your recipe for custard or something; we just don’t know yet enough about it.
Finally, putting aside the lofty goals of empowering web users, the question that will be poised by the less idealistic VC’s that might be looking to invest in this technology is, “How do you make money from this?”
We have given a lot of thought about that and made a lot of mistakes as well and I think U-turns on it. But basically we have a technology which we issue licenses to other organizations and participate with them as strategic partners. For instance, in rolling out the technology. And there are two kind of key parts for that, two key aspects of the technology, one is that the technology can be used by any ecommerce sites, whether that’s an e-tail or social site, in order to provide better recommendations, using their algorithms. So, that’s a pure B2B solution, and we have the company incorporated in United States at the moment in order to do that. We would be interested in anyone who would like to partner with us to roll that out. And then, the other side is that we feel we can create a better web by harnessing the power of mass collaboration, just like Wikipedia, to map the genome of the web and out of that, will come better search engines, will come a better ability to find people like you anywhere you are, enhance your blog, pretty much a holistic upgrade, if you like, of the web itself. And that, we believe, like search engines themselves, is a pure advertising based free service to users. So, we see there is an application there and in fact within next 30 days, we will be launching the Web Genome Project with its own website, and that would be an advertising based play again. We believe that that has potential in every country in the world and we are open to issue licenses to partners that would like to take up the opportunity.
It’s an interesting play, mapping personal values to the content of the web. While I remain a little cynical about whether VortexDNA will gather the critical mass it needs to make this a viable route to disambiguation, I suspect there’s a big idea here that might not quite be ready for prime time.
Branton and I chatted about a number of other things in the interview, including a couple books, The Intention Experiment by Lynne McTaggart and The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, that might be interesting reading for those looking for further explore this topic. I’ve posted the entire transcript on my blog.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.