Do you ever look at a bird or a tree and wonder “I wish I knew more about it”? I’m useless with birds. Probably even more useless with trees. In some ways it is strange: I could close my eyes and name more trees and more birds than many other people, I have an excellent vocabulary in that context. But when it comes to connecting the word with the real thing, my knowledge is poor.
I used to tell myself it was because I grew up in a concrete jungle. But after a few visits to India I realised this wasn’t true, every city I visited had its fair share of trees and birds and plants and flowers and fruit and I didn’t know which was which.
Now, as I grow older, I live in hope. I live in hope that soon I will have the tools to do something about my ignorance. In fact I look forward to a time when I can indulge myself and learn about all the things in nature I know so little about it.
Some time ago I was looking through the iPhone app store and I noticed this:
iBird Explorer. Everything you always wanted to know about birds, sitting there in the palm of your hand.
Well, almost everything. Because tools like iBird can sometimes have what I’ve heard described as the dictionary problem. If you want to know how to spell something, where do you go? The dictionary. And what do you need to know in order to use the dictionary? The spelling of the word. Mmm-hmm. Don’t get my drift? Imagine someone wondering how to spell “diarrhoea”.
So I thought to myself. IBird Explorer is great, it’s a fantastic looking app, and I’ll buy a copy as soon as they have one for Berkshire or Southern England or even the UK. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could merge the functionality of iBird with that of Shazam?
I love Shazam, I’ve enjoyed using it ever since it came out, in the days when all you had to do was call 2580 and point the phone at where the music was playing. As they say on their site:
That’s what I want to be able to do. Identify a tree or a flower simply by pointing a phone at it and tapping “tag”. Identify a bird simply by letting the phone hear its call and tapping “tag”.
It’s going to happen. Sean Park, an erstwhile colleague and a good friend of mine, used to wax lyrical about the “future”, a time when everyone had powerful devices in their hands, devices that could be used to crowdsource information about all kinds of things, starting with the weather and climate. He saw the power of GPS-meets-camera-meets-computer-in-your-hand a long time before it became real. Well, that future is here. Now.
We spend too much time worrying about all the Big Brother things that can happen to us because of the Web. CCTV Nation, that sort of thing.
Have you read the papers recently? Don’t you think we’ve had enough bad news for a while? Don’t you think, perhaps we’ve had a teensy bit too much bad news? Just a teensy bit?
So I’m going to spend time dreaming dreams and seeing visions, of the things that could be, of the things that could be soon.
Like having a Shazam for birds and trees and flowers. When the power of portable computing meets the power of ubiquitous connectivity to do more useful things.
And it’s not just about birds and trees. It’s about cars and planes and dogs and cats and fruit and flowers. Yes, and people too. Which raises all kinds of privacy questions, but we might as well get used to answering them. Because it’s going to happen.
Point. Click. Press “tag”. Get the sound or image analysed. Match the pattern. Get the answer.
[Incidentally, today we can talk about sound or image. Tomorrow we will be able to add smell and texture to that list, as sensors get cleverer.]
As Linus’s Law says, Given Enough Eyeballs All Bugs Are Shallow. It’s not just about code, it’s about information in general. Sensors everywhere, connected to that great database in the sky. Point. Click. Get the answer.
Some of the reasons I look forward to my retirement. To a time when I can learn more about birds and trees and flowers.