Our search bars are evolving

Imlisanen Jamir

The evolution of the internet and search engines, specifically Google, has had a profound impact on our lives. Since the advent of Google, it has been the gatekeeper to the world's digital abundance and dominates more than 90% of internet user searches. The ads sold by Google against this activity have fueled a money-making machine that generated more than a quarter-trillion dollars in sales last year.

The click-based economy has made the world more efficient in some ways, but it turned this miraculous global information databank into a frenzied real estate auction with every website scrabbling to climb to the top of the search results, collect the most clicks, and retain the most eyeballs. However, a new era has begun with the advent of OpenAI's ChatGPT in late 2022. The arrival of this technology has sent shock waves through tech company boardrooms.

Google's rival, Microsoft, wasted no time using its stake in OpenAI to create a beta version of a conversational agent connected to its own search engine, Bing. Google also hooked up its own next-generation chatbot, Bard, to its core search product. Although these are early days for the technology, the speed with which Google has moved to introduce a half-baked A.I. tool into its biggest moneymaker, despite the threat it could pose to its business model, is an indication of how seriously it is taking this moment.

Replacing the click economy and its cornerstone, the search bar, with something like a conversation is what Bard and a ChatGPT-powered Bing are offering. This allows users to ask more human-like questions and have sustained conversations with a system that retains context. Instead of offering a menu of links (and ads), your interlocutor/informational concierge cuts to the chase, perhaps offering some footnotes for further reading.

Before Google, this kind of synthesis was what everyone thought our digital future would look like. Early visionaries like Vannevar Bush foresaw the ocean of information that we swim in and imagined systems that would allow us to follow "trailblazers" and synthesizers. Science fiction writers in the 1980s and '90s imagined AI constructs who acted like librarians, like the polite subsystem in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash that can summarize books, correlate information, and conduct long conversations with humans.

The introduction of conversation-based interfaces would be a radical shift from how we have all trained ourselves to work with keyword-based systems like Google. When we have a complicated question to ask the internet, we often have to reverse-engineer our query, trying to imagine what kind of language the algorithm might respond to, and how we might need to rephrase our search. A conversational interface would eliminate the need for this, allowing us to ask questions as we might naturally do to another person.

Google's dominance over the internet search market may have led to an era of information overload and click-based economies. However, the arrival of new technologies, such as ChatGPT and Bard, is ushering in a new era where the search bar may soon become a relic of the past. While the transition may be a difficult one, the benefits of conversation-based interfaces are vast, and it is a technology that we should embrace with open arms.
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