Siri,Quora, And The Future Of Search

Editor’s note: Contributor Dan Kaplan leads Product Marketing for Twilio and writes occasionally about the extrapolation of the present into the future.

With the rise of Google+, the decrease in controversial posting activity by famous tech people and the allure of other shiny new things, the majority of tech press has turned the focus of their gazes away from Quora, my favorite startup of 2010.

Well now that Apple has gone and integrated the most sophisticated piece of AI to ever to see the light of the consumer market into its iPhone 4S, I thought it was time to brush some dirt off of Quora’s shoulder and shine a light on what the future of the company could hold.

What most people who don’t get Quora miss when they write it off as “another Q&A site” (or whatever it is they say then they write it off) is this: When they first launched Quora in the Fall of 2009, Quora’s founders and their first hire—designer Rebekah Cox—created the core of the most impressive “subjective knowledge extraction” machine ever constructed. (Yes, Wikipedia deserves its credit as the first juggernaut of this space, but Quora is positioned to eventually seize its mantle. Meanwhile, you could argue that the whole internet is the most impressive subjective knowledge extraction technology ever constructed, but that’s just semantics).

By combining an answer voting mechanism and a reward addiction loop (upvotes are crack) with a strict identity requirement and a one-to-many follower model, Quora started solving the problem of extracting high-quality experiential knowledge out of humanity’s collective head and getting it into structured form on the internet. What’s more, Quora is also using humanity’s collective wisdom to rank it.

With this engine, Quora is building a database of human experience that could eventually contain the answers to a lot of questions people carrying the iPhones of the future might have.

Which brings me back to Siri.

For those of you who haven’t thought through it yet or haven’t played with the iPhone 4S, Siri is a game-changing technology: The thing knows how to translate the garble of human language into targeted API calls that subsequently pull out the correct information from a potentially ever-expanding set of databases (assuming that Apple one day integrates other databases into Siri, which I’m confident it will). The main thing standing between Siri and the best answer for our likely questions is that the database that contains these answers is still a work in progress.

That work in progress is Quora, which is probably why I heard the rumor that some massive search and advertising company that shall go unnamed until the next paragraph allegedly offered to pay upwards of $1B to acquire it.

If that rumor is true, it means that Google looked at Quora and understood the magnitude of the threat. If it’s not true, it means someone making high-level strategic decisions at Google is not paying attention. As I wrote in a post about Quora and Google in March:

Consider an internet on which the best answers to the majority of our queries come not from the vast, increasingly noisy expanses of the world-wide-web but from the concentrated knowledge and experience of its most articulate experts. Here, you no longer filter through 10 blue links (or hundreds) to find what you seek; you simply input your query and are delivered the top response. Should you find yourself asking a question no one has asked before, you merely add it to the stream, where it makes its way to the people who can answer it best.

Take Siri as the primary interface for these queries and that just about wraps it up: If Quora’s brilliant team successfully navigates the chasm between its passionate early adopters and the rest of the articulate set, their company could eventually, along with Siri, become an existential danger to the core of Google’s business.