Ever wondered how you were supposed to keep up with the never-ending stream of content and data in your life? Not to worry, the elves of the Internet are busy at work, creating everything from magical little algorithms that automatically execute basic tasks to sophisticated utility apps that run in the background, taking care of all the minutiae in your daily life. Forget about hiring a personal assistant, you can “hire” off-the-shelf algorithms and digital apps that do all the heavy lifting for you. If that doesn’t work, just ask Siri. Your life is an algorithm, your brain is an operating system, now go get some sleep.
One of these digital algorithms that is attracting the most buzz is ifttt, which is shorthand for “if this, then that.” If this sounds like a bit of algorithmic computer programming jargon, then that’s because it is. IFTTT actually refers to these algorithms as “recipes,” and encourages users to create and post their own recipes. In the same way that you swap food recipes with your next-door neighbor, you can now swap computer algorithms with the guy or gal in the cubicle next to you. Eventually, these lightweight algorithms will become increasingly powerful. They are becoming “a second brain for saving, sharing, and organizing information” in your life.
We are entering a new era where the algorithm rules. Algorithms are what determines what search results you see with Google or what shared items pop up in your Facebook feed. Algorithms are what make artificial intelligence possible. Once you are able to reduce elements of your physical, real-world life into a series of 1’s and 0’s, you can take advantage of a new tools that promise to go beyond just curating elements of your life – they actually include the instructions for completing simple, everyday tasks, like uploading photos to Facebook, transferring Google Reader articles to other places on the Web, or downloading Instagram photos to Dropbox. Individually, each of these actions might take several minutes from your busy digital life. Now, they can happen instantaneously.
Taking a bigger picture view, the Web is moving away from just curating content, to actually performing artificial intelligence operations on that content. Legendary venture capitalist Vinod Khosla recently referred to these utility apps as one of the last great unhyped areas of the Internet. In short, we are experiencing a move away from curatorial tools to algorithmic tools. We are, indeed, creating a type of second brain made possible by basic programming skills. A whole group of sites – Screenr, Google Reader, Diigo, delicious, Instapaper, Evernote, Pinterest, and Social Cast – are becoming part of a massive second brain that is able to establish relationships between all the content that we are creating online with different Web services.
In the process, the human brain is becoming an operating system rather than a computational engine. Think about that for a second – just as a company like Apple relentlessly rushes out new versions of its Mac OS X operating system to take advantage of new computing capabilities, humans are also updating their version of their internal operating systems. (Some of us are running OS X Lion, while some of us are still running OS X Tiger.) Take, for example, the way that the current generation views the Web as a sort of shared external memory:
“We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others. Should we need the details, we can look them up within seconds. Similarly, we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialise in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust.”
There has been constant talk of the blurring of our online and offline lives. With the current generation of tools, algorithms and utilities, we may have reached a new inflection point in the human race for artificial intelligence. We used to talk in terms of “the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.” Soon, we may need another metaphor: “the second brain not knowing what the first brain is doing.”
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