Firefox Test Pilot introduces smart ‘Advance’ extension to help you explore the web

Mozilla’s Firefox web browser announced today a new experimental extension called Advance that uses machine learning to help users more contextually and intuitively surf the web. This extension is part of Firefox’s ongoing Test Pilot program (which users can opt into anytime) and is powered by the machine learning backbone of the startup Laserlike to better understand a user’s browsing habits.

Here’s how it works: Once enabled through the Test Pilot app, you can browse as normal, and Advance will start taking notes and learning about the kind of sites you browse. From what it’s learned, the extension will recommend pages you might want to “Read Next” that complement your current browsing (say you’re searching for a new local hangout) or pages that it thinks you might just like in the “For You” section of the sidebar. But if Advance gets it wrong, users can flag recommendations as boring, off-topic or spam and help fine-tune the extension to their preferences.

This feature is part of the company’s Context Graph initiative that aims to enable the “next generation of web discovery on the internet” and allow users to explore different corners of the web than those they trek daily (read: keep users on the application longer). The first effort in this arena, a new functionality called Activity Stream that helps users more intuitively interact with their history and bookmarks, graduated from Test Pilot and shipped out with the new Firefox Quantum browser in November of this past year.

The introduction of Advance also fills a gap recently left behind by the site StumbleUpon when it closed up shop this May after 16 years of helping users get lost in cyberspace. While Advance offers a smarter option (StumbleUpon had more chance built into its one-click site generation functionality) the spirit of the workplace internet wanderer continues.

But, as is the issue with all life-easing machine learning technologies, in order to help you browse the internet, Advance and, in turn, Laserlike, need to know a lot about your browser history. While this is necessary for the technology to learn, Mozilla acknowledges that fears of misused and manipulated personal data are at a high these days following breaches of privacy and trust by companies like Facebook and Equifax among others in recent months.

To account for this unease, Advance allows users the option to pause the collection of browser history, view it and request Laserlike delete it.