Apr 25, 2008

The Affinity Graph

Is the Affinity Graph the anticipated Internet Singularity?

Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, has been talking about this concept of the future "Internet of things." By "things" he means the people and other objects on the internet, and he argues that those things and the connections between them are the key aspects of the web. This, he argues, is the primary evolution of the walled gardens of "Web 2.0" into something far more important. He calls this evolution the Giant Global Graph, while others call it Web 3.0 or the Semantic Web.

The use of the term "Graph" has been met with a bit of consternation by those who argue that we already have the term "network" to describe these connections. Robert Scoble describes the difference in reference to social relationships where your social network is who you know, while your Social Graph describes who you are associated with based on common objects of interest (passions, concerns, politics, religion, work, school, etc.). He says: "The Social Graph is NOT my social network. My Social Network is my friends list. But the Social Graph shows a LOT more than that." A Graph then is not simply the simple connections, but the types and context of connections and the strengths of those connections.

While the Graph will ultimately know what is currently song #3 on your iPod, some metadata about the song, as well as all the other people who have the same song as #3 on their iPods, one must wonder "what's the point"? How does this help me discover that I should be a dolphin trainer, or to find new people that share my way of thinking? Once the monstrous amount of data on the Graph is accessible to robots, many will be applying data mining and filtering algorithms, and massive amounts of CPU, to try to generate usable information about the people and other objects on the web.

Tim Berners-Lee envisioned the ability to create "intelligent agents", sort of like advanced email filters, to perform many of the more tedious tasks, easier and faster. I talked about a similar kind of agent in the post "Your Identity Proxy". Real progress will be achieved when future technology will be able to offer the users a much more personalized and enjoyable experience, and of course better targeting of those users with commercial objects. In practical terms, this will require the storage of as much data as possible about users and their objects so that futuristic computer programs will be able to make sense of the identities of those users and the meanings of those objects, and also to make predictions about the basic affinities between the objects and users. Some even predict that given enough information, "the machine" will begin to transcend the metadata and attain a kind of sentience (or sapience).

This is similar to the ideas of Gary Flake who hypothesized that continued advancements in networked information and other technologies will create a "virtuous cycle" leading to what he terms the "Internet Singularity". As with the Global Graph, we are far from advanced enough technologically to see these concepts realized in the near future.

Let me propose that both the Internet Singularity and the Global Graph are overlapping concepts that are largely achievable today through the Affinity Graph, a major element of this project. As of late 2007, we have had the technology to begin to store the affinity relationships and strengths between users and all other objects on the internet and mobile devices. This is a much simpler abstraction, where we store the most important kind of meaning (affinity) for the typical user. In other words, the most important benefit of the Graph or Singularity, e.g. searching, personalization, and discovery, can be generated, stored and queried in a much more feasible way than is predicted for the Graph, Semantic Web, or Singularity.

With the Affinity Graph, the similarity in meaning of objects, including people, will be known. Universal categorization, classification, hierarchies and affinity matching will all be made fairly trivial. Users will have immediate access to their future favorites in every domain of life; likewise objects (and those that care about them) will know which users are likely to most appreciate those objects (marketers? advertisers? evangelists?). This is the point at which the Utopian dreams of internet visionaries is realized. The Affinity Graph does not make irrelevant other forms of abstractions or metadata upon which computer scientists are free to set loose their strong AI. There are many other kinds of meaning, and those will be explored by computers in time.

The Singularity is here, as is the Global Graph, in ways that are most important to users.