Back in November we told you about Futureful, a Finnish startup that’s trying to create a semantically-driven content discovery tool — kind of like StumbleUpon but smarter. Well, as of now, iPad users in the U.S. can try it out for themselves.
The company, which describes itself as “a group of humanists and computer scientists,” is basically trying to fuse machine learning with human understanding. It’s backed by Skype co-founder and über-angel Janus Friis, who lent a glowing quote to the launch release:
“Futureful makes it fun to surf the web again. Everyone should try it. And this is only the beginning of what Futureful can become.”
So, how does that square up with the reality of using the app?
I’ve been playing around with it a bit pre-launch, and I have to say the simplicity of the interface appeals, particularly when you compare it with the iPad version of StumbleUpon. That said, it can be a bit confusing at first, and that’s partially a data issue.
What you’ll see is an in-app browser, much as you’d get with Twitter or StumbleUpon, but with two rows of tags at the top. The first row is what Futureful’s artificial intelligence engine is proposing, based on the personalized information it gleans when you sign in using Twitter or Facebook. The second row takes in the tags you’ve picked.
That’s where it gets confusing. If you have multiple tags, sometimes they will all light up — if two are activated, for example, that means the piece of content you’re looking at covers both subjects. Sometimes, though, only one will be activated at a time. The example where I saw this happen involved the tags “swarm” and “robots”. This should really produce something relating to swarm robotics, perhaps, but it doesn’t.
“If you do some queries, a lot of them will combine,” co-founder Marko Anderson explained to me. “That might lead to content that’s older or less relevant. The system makes a decision that an article is closely related to ‘swarming robots’, but we’re not including that in the query.”
Similarly, sometimes if you swipe down to check out a second page related to your chosen tag, it will default to a Google search results page. As Anderson noted, this is about populating Futureful, and that’s hard to do before it has a significant number of users.
“Certain topics are very well covered and certain aren’t,” he said. “The technology is in very good shape, but it’s always a data problem with search. Now that we’re getting it out there, we’re going to continually ramp up the index. Users can also add content. It’s not alive yet until many people are dynamically using it.”
But is it fun? Yes, in a curious way. I like that it doesn’t regurgitate the same content over and over, and Friis isn’t blowing hot air when he talks about getting a sense of things to come. It’s a very different kind of search from Google, to be sure – think serendipity rather than looking for something specific – but the mechanism is intriguing, and it may well evolve into something useful down the line.
Speaking of Futureful’s future, Anderson told me the immediate next steps will involve more countries and more platforms – iPhone first, as that version is pretty much developed, then Android. But the company is also playing around with various data visualization ideas, perhaps around trending topics and so forth.
Which sounds good, as this team is clearly pretty smart and imaginative, but I just hope the Futureful app retains its elegant simplicity, rather than going too far down the ‘what kind of search would you like?’ route. There’s a nugget of something powerful here, and it needs to develop in its own way.