Facebook Graph Search Is Boring: We Need A Unified Search AI

The big Facebook news tech blogs were all freaking out about turned out to be just another shot in the platform wars.

There's nothing exciting about Facebook's Graph Search. It's just another way to lock in free users to a mediocre, incomplete service, just like Google wants to do with Google+. Until there's a personalized, natural-language search box that can search whatever and wherever we want, I don't think anything else matters.

The way I see it, there are three companies offering rudimentary artificial intelligence to consumers at a grand scale: Google, Apple, and now Facebook. (Sorry, Microsoft, you're a distant fourth.) All of these companies want to provide you convenient answers when you ask them questions in your own language. Hundreds of millions of people use more than one of these. Many use all three. But they can only be used one at a time. While you're using any one of them, you're not using the others. Therein lies the problem.

Asking questions and getting answers is one of the most important things we want to do with computers. It's the thing that impresses us most. Our sense of living in the future is bolstered by this very feature. When it works, we're amazed. When it fails, we feel like our magical gadgets have let us down.

And right now, each contender has its own box we have to use to ask different questions of different data sets. We have to remember the strengths and weaknesses of each box. If our question fails in one box, we have to go to another box and start over again. Facebook Graph Search is just another box.

The next interesting kind of search is a single, personal, natural-language interface to all of the data sources of our choosing. Wake me when we get that.

Facebook Is Too Creepy

Facebook's Graph Search will tell you things about your friends and "friends" and "likes" and your "friends' likes" on Facebook. It's Facebook's first bit of AI stalking enhancement. It lets you ask natural-language queries about your social sphere, like "single people near me who work at Facebook," and it displays all the answers it can find. This makes privacy more important than ever. If you don't take care of your privacy settings on your posts and profile, Facebook's AI search is going to dig that stuff up.

So everyone who's smart will limit the amount of information that can be found about them on Facebook, since now it's so easy to find. People will realize that they should share only things they want people to find, and that's a good thing. But it also means searching on Facebook will show you only a narrow band of things.

If the answer is not on Facebook, Graph Search searches the Web with Bing. Oh, great. What if your search and browsing history, your email, your saved places, and (for nostalgia's sake) your RSS feeds are all on Google? Well, you'll have to go to another site or app and ask a different AI for that.

Google Is Too Geeky

Google's mission has always been to "organize the world's information." Lately, the end goal of that mission has become clear. Google gathers information about absolutely everything, and relates that information to us personally, because it wants to build the Star Trek computer that can answer all our questions. It even has Ray Kurzweil, one of the most starry-eyed proponents of powerful AI, working on the problem.

The issue is that Google doesn't know us very well. It knows a great deal about our searches, our email, oftentimes our location and all of that, but it doesn't have a clear enough picture of our relationships to draw many conclusions about them. It's trying to get us to point them out with Google+, but Facebook is still the place where the lion's share of online friendship happens. It's where we indicate who and what we really care about.

Because Facebook and Google are in competition for our attention, they don't work together. Both companies offer cheeky bromides about being willing to work together, but that just means they each want the other to compromise its business and hand over the valuable data. That's not going to happen under today's economics. So for different kinds of questions, we're stuck with different search boxes.

Apple Is Too Paranoid

The biggest question mark in consumer AI is Apple's Siri. Apple seems to realize, at least partially, that the AI has to have many, many data sources in order to have good answers. The problem is that it won't partner with Google, which is the best data source in most businesses, because they're competitors at the OS level.

There are finally great iOS apps for the core Google features, but they don't talk to Siri. If you ask Siri for directions, she uses Apple Maps, which are not as good. If you ask her for a list of restaurants, she uses Yelp, which might be fine, but not if you're a Google Maps or Foursquare user (unless Apple buys Foursquare).

The problem with Siri — and iOS in general, really — is that you can't switch the data sources. You can't choose to use Google Maps with Apple's AI, and if you choose to use Google's AI on Apple's device, it's a hack. It's not integrated with the system.

Now, Facebook is integrated into Apple's operating systems, so it would be interesting to see Siri use Facebook's Graph Search. Now we're getting somewhere. But Google is still the best AI for a great many kinds of questions, so we'll still need two boxes.

Search That Works For Us

We won't really be in the future until it works like this: We've got our own AI assistants who know us intimately but protect our information. We can ask them questions, and they will use every data source to find the right answer for us, not merely the best one available on a proprietary service.

Until then, all these companies will keep building their own boxes, and we'll have to run around between them pretending it's convenient.

Lead image courtesy of ShutterstockFacebook photo by Taylor Hatmaker.