Browsing through Microsoft patent library we often come across ideas which we wish they implemented, but which never made it to a product.
Today we came across the opposite – an idea whose time we hope never comes.
The patent, called “QUERY FORMULATION VIA TASK CONTINUUM”, notes that efficient searching is enhanced if more information is available regarding the user intent, giving the example of someone doing a school report on dancing, and noting that despite the user having done some work already, when they hit the browser to search the search engine would not have any idea what the user is working on except for what they have typed into the search bar.
They note: "People use multiple desktop applications in order to complete a single task. For example, if a user is researching the topic of “dancing” for school, the user will use a first application to write things down as well as a second application such as a browser, to search different styles of dancing. However, in existing systems, the two applications are completely disconnected from each other. The first application does not provide the browser implicit hints as to what the user might be seeking when there is a switch from the first application to the second application. The user perceives tasks in the totality. However, since applications are typically disconnected, and not mediated in any way by the operating system (OS), the computing system has no idea as to the overall goal of the user."
Microsoft’s solution to this conundrum is to have an agent or “mediator” watching what the user is doing in “active 3rd party applications” such as a word processor PDF reader, recognizing images or text from the photos they are looking at, recognizing music or sound, their location and other contextual data, removing personally identifiable information from this data, and adding it in some way to the search query to produce better ranked and more focussed results.
The patent notes:
In short, Clippy on steroids. The main concern with such a system is of course personal data leaking despite Microsoft’s supposed privacy safeguards or reading the user’s context wrong leading to more frustration (another Clippy problem). On the other hand a very intelligent agent would definitely be better if it knew everything about me, and there are many who say privacy is dead already. The patent is in some ways similar to Google’s Now on Tap or Screen Search, which scrapes an application screen for text and other information and then launches a contextual Google Search. It does however sound a bit more far reaching and a lot more autonomous.