Better Internet Search Ltd is announced.

Better Internet Search Ltd is announced.

Today, 4th October 2019, the new start-up company – Better Internet Search Ltd – was revealed through an exclusive article in Scottish newspaper The Herald. The new company is based on technology originally developed by Trisent and licensed to them.

As the name suggests they are developing a better internet search engine and have secured funding from the Next Generation Internet Trust to develop their ad-free monetisation model. You can read the full Herald Article here.

The company are currently looking for users to be the very first ‘guinea pigs’ to try out the alternative search engine in Edinburgh this month. You can register your interest here.

Hiring Software Developers Now

Hiring Software Developers Now

We will soon be making an announcement about an exciting new project we have been working on.  We are looking for talented software developers to join us on this project and hope to recruit a full-stack developer immediately and we will also looking for skills in a number of other areas as the project develops.  Knowledge of cloud platforms (ideally Azure) and AI/Machine Learning would be really useful too (but not essential).

To work with us you must have a “can-do” attitude and be looking to stretch yourself and contribute to our start-up culture.  We offer an enjoyable working environment and big opportunities for the right people that share in our vision.

If you are interested please do get in touch and feel free to share with friends or colleagues that might be interested in having an informal chat with us.

Vector Illustration by Vecteezy!

Search engine bias is particularly insidious

Search engine bias is particularly insidious

Larry Page

“Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users.  …., we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards theadvertisers and away from the needs of the consumers. ….., search engine bias is particularly insidious.”

Larry Page and Sergey Brin – 1998

These are direct quotations taken from a 1998 paper by Sergey Brin and Larry Page [1], the founders of Google, when their company was in its infancy. The quotes can all be found in “Appendix A: Advertising and Mixed Motives” of the paper.  I agree 100% with the quoted statements but wonder if Brin and Page are still aligned to these, and has Google abandoned their original ideals to become what some may consider to be a “particularly insidious” behemoth?

I hope to be able to post some details soon of one project I am investing a lot of time in that will remove advertising from the search business model and deliver quality user-focussed search with no commercial bias.  So watch this space!

[1] The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, Stanford University, 1998, http://ilpubs.stanford.edu:8090/361/1/1998-8.pdf

 

Trisent is to benefit from the European Erasmus Programme

Trisent is to benefit from the European Erasmus Programme

TRISENT is strengthening its collaboration with Edinburgh Napier University through two student projects supported by the Erasmus Programme.

Two final-year students from Spain are coming to Edinburgh in March as part of the European Erasmus Programme. They will both be working with Trisent Ltd and Edinburgh Napier University on Proof-of-Concept projects which demonstrate the benefits that internet users can gain from the use of consolidated personal data.

You can read the full story here on All Media Scotland.

Can blockchain solve the problem of trust?

Can blockchain solve the problem of trust?

The answer is no! … Okay, that would be a very short read so maybe I should provide the reasoning behind this short answer.  Also, to avoid appearing too negative on the issue, I should first state that I do believe that blockchain has a lot to contribute positively around the issue of trust.

The internet has connected the world (well over half of the world’s population can now access the internet) we can communicate and transact with almost anyone on the planet. The problem is that a small proportion of the people feeding us information or attempting to transact with us cannot be trusted. So, the internet may well have solved a worldwide communication problem but in so doing a large problem of trust has emerged – i.e. we can now connect with billions of people we don’t know, we know that some of them will be dishonest, but we don’t know who specifically we can trust. The traditional way to address the “who do we trust” problem is to use people we do trust as intermediaries to check information or to police transactions and, of course, this is expensive and time consuming.

Today with the use of blockchain we can now make financial transaction successfully without using a trusted intermediary – except we are using blockchain’s distributed ledger as the trusted party. We trust the ledger because it is distributed, transparent and the code that created it is open for verification. In the case of bitcoin the code is relatively simple and generally trusted, however as blockchain is now being used for more involved tasks, the code can become complex and will inevitably require updates to fix bugs and improve functionality – thus it is helpful to have a trusted party with the authority to make such changes (albeit with high levels of transparency through visibility of the code).

The holy grail for many blockchain evangelist is the Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) where the organisation hierarchy is flat (i.e. there is no board or government that sits at the top of a hierarchical pyramid to manage the organisation). The governance is automatically orchestrated by smart contracts, the evolution of the organisation is through the members (typically token holders) having voting power and any changes to the organisation would be by consensus of the members. Even fixing a bug in the constitutional code requires new code to be proposed, and that a consensus of members agree to accept the new code. Reaching consensus quickly on complex issues in a dynamic organisation is not always practical and so the ideology begins to crumble somewhat. In the future entire countries could perhaps be run as DAOs, but today’s technology is simply not advanced enough to allow the removal of key decision makers.

For complex systems to be based on blockchain today there needs to be many trusted elements in the system, and completely flat hierarchy organisations are not yet practical for all but the simplest of systems run by smart contracts. This might not sit well with many of today’s blockchain evangelists, but the reality is that we have shifted a problem of “who do we trust” to a problem of “do we trust this code” – or even do we trust the person that wrote the code. The public visibility of code and consensus to accept it helps greatly. However, most software developers would agree that you cannot always trust your own code to do exactly what was intended once it has reached more than a few tens of lines, even with rigorous reviews and testing (just ask NASA!).

So, it seems we cannot eliminate the problem of involving a trusted party, but we can greatly improve the confidence in the trusted party through transparency and consensus. What this means is that if a trusted party commits a dishonest or negligent act that is not immediately detected, there may not be a direct mechanism to stop the impact of this, but there is an indirect mechanism that will reveal wrongdoing or incompetence and therefore encourages the trusted party to act honestly and diligently in the first place.

Let me use a true story to illustrate this in practice. Estonia is believed to have the most advanced digital society in the world. Everyone has a digital identity and access to most of their own digital information. Access to certain sensitive personal information is only permitted for legitimate reasons by certain parties and all data access is recorded on an immutable ledger. An Estonian police officer once decided to use his privileged access to citizen data for the purposes of checking on his partner. He had no right to view her data for this purpose but had been trusted with access to this system. His partner was able to see that her records had been accessed by the police on a particular day. She questioned the reason for this and on investigation by the authorities it was revealed that it was her partner that had looked at her records. His improper actions had been recorded on a trusted ledger and resulted in him being sent to prison. This story has even been retold by their president and serves as a powerful deterrent to any other trusted person in Estonia considering abusing their privileged access to personal data.

So, although a system with this type of transparency may not, in all instances, stop improper behaviour by trusted parties, the fact that the wrongdoing could be easily detected reduces the likelihood of future abuses and increases trust. In a nutshell, transparency becomes the basis for trust; and the blockchain’s immutable distributed ledgers and open source code are excellent for transparency.

In summary, blockchain is not a panacea for trust. In a simple sense it seems to be a partial solution to the problem of distrust. i.e. we can actually transact directly with untrusted individuals without a trusted intermediary if we can trust the blockchain technology that oversees the transaction. Blockchain and smart contracts cannot be inherently trusted – they must establish trust in the architects, the coders the participants, and anyone involved in the implementation and operation of the system. However, the transparency and consensus mechanisms built into the technology are a significant aid to building that trust.

When will Google’s search engine monopoly be broken?

When will Google’s search engine monopoly be broken?

In the 1990s I was an academic at the University of Edinburgh teaching electronics and computing. In 1998 a colleague introduced me to the Google search engine and as a result I made the shift from my previously preferred search engine, Alta Vista, to Google. Twenty years on, despite trying many others, I still use Google regularly. I was delighted by the Google experience 20 years ago, but today I dislike Google search for several reasons but I have yet to find a noticeably better alternative.

In a recent poll conducted by the Search Engine Journal (SEJ) it was revealed that that Duck Duck Go (DDG) is the most popular alternative to Google (based on 1097 SEJ Twitter followers who responded). However, according to Statcounter DDG have just 0.32% (October 2018) of the search market and Google have 92.74%. My question is whether Google’s monopoly could be under threat by emerging search engines such as DDG and if so, why have they not yet made a major impact on Google’s market share?

SEJsurvey

Google has held a monopoly position for around 20 years and in that time ‘to Google’ has become a verb. This incumbent position will not be easy to shift. DDG has a very similar product to Google it has not made much of a dent in the market. Their major differentiator is that it respects user privacy. However, if we are honest it does not deliver truly better search results, in fact in my experience the results are generally less good – and are still tainted by significant volumes of undesirable advertising content. Thus, DDGs market is a niche market segment that believe user privacy is essential and are willing to accept slightly inferior search results to achieve this. This market sector (which I include myself in) is huge in world terms – but remains a niche.

My shift from Alta Vista to Google some 20 years ago was based on it being a better solution to my internet search problem — data privacy was not generally thought about in 1998. For me DDG is not yet a better solution, if better results and less advertising (which I know is how they make money) was delivered alonside its enhanced privacy, then it could be a winner. The other problem for DDG is that the federated results use Bing as a major source of data, so they do not have an independent platform from which they can base an assault on Google.

My current opinion is that Google will slowly lose market share to a variety of small search engines such as DDG. One of these players will emerge as a future challenger to Google within the next 5 years and we may not even have heard of them yet. The successful search engine will likely do their own crawling and indexing so they are not dependent on Bing, Google or Yahoo and they will not rely on pay-per-click (PPC) advertising which most users dislike. It is quite probable that when they do emerge as a leading contender they will be acquired and scaled by a company with a large existing subscriber base and complimentary business activities such as Amazon.