159 – APPs! APPs! APPs!

Posted on August 29, 2012 by


I’ll stick my neck out on this one. The next five years will witness a cyberspace revolution comparable to the one internet has just wrought – and going in the “opposite” direction. This revolution is called APPs! for “applications”.

In short: if the internet brought the commodification of knowledge, APPs will bring about the commodification of expert systems.

One goes on the net to gain access to widespread knowledge. The image is the point reaching out toward infinite ideas as a river in a delta. One also goes on the net for the opposite reason: to gain easy access to expert knowledge one may use confidently. It is the mirror image to the first one. Infinite rivulets of knowledge are assembled for ease of use.

            seeking knowledge


                                                                                                                                                     getting an APP    © ESA              

What do I expect from an APP? APP should yield expert and trustworthy knowledge in readily usable form and be at hand in my mobile when needed, or convenient – anywhere, any time. Such knowledge should be structured in “situational” ways: it should answer the question: “what if”?

One might want to use an analogy from psychology: the “heuristic” or rule of thumb. Our mind is structured like a repository of APPs: we have zillions of “default” reactions or “heuristics” for this or that situation. They stay conveniently dormant somewhere among the 85 billion neurons of brain until circumstances push it reliably to the fore at once. And there it is: simple, easy – a routine, possibly laced with emotions for unthinking action. Of course we can override it in the light of circumstances, but it’s handy to have a point of departure.

Please note: this is not AI – an integrated system. This is a very simple adaptive tool, whose aim is to help navigate situations. It is strictly “bottom up”, or as some might argue disparagingly: “stamp collecting”. It’s only merit is that it is useful, no more.

Here a few examples.

Taking medical prescriptions. One tends to throw away, or ignore, the over-long sheet that comes neatly folded within the box, and outlines uses and side-effects. Give me an APP instead (or in addition). It may be interactive in a simple way: I insert into the APP my age, sex, and medical conditions, and the APP then only tells me what’s relevant for me, rather than warning me that I should avoid the product if I’m pregnant, or reduce the dosage if I’m under 12 years of age. The APP helps me navigate the information.

Other advantage: an APP has more memory space. So, rather than telling me that I might get tummy-ache as side-effect, and make me all fluttery and tense, it might tell me soothingly that less than 1% of the patients so far have developed this condition. It may even have a feature to inform the company that a side-effect has eventuated. The APP may remind me that I need to take the medication. Ditch the APP after swallowing the past pill.

Do I have a medical condition? My GP gives me the corresponding APP[1] – it will answer fretful questions that have come to mind after I have left his practice – or in between visits. Collaterally the APPs content sets a knowledge floor under the GP’s performance and presentation of the condition: he’ll have to rise to the level of “best practice” in the APP or acknowledge and justify the deviation. This is a subtle way to spread “best practice” and keep the lazy on their toes. Medical associations could find a new lease on their life by designing such APPs.

APPs to assist in rehabilitation would be of great help. The instructions one gets are often too long to memorize, or one has other things on the mind, or whatever. Better to have an APP that tells the tale. They do not need to be exhaustive. They should just empower the patient to manage himself after exiting the hospital – or assist him in seeking help. Yes, there should be a “panic button” with many APPs.

Instructions for tools nowadays come in 16 languages – all poorly translated from Chinese (I have folders full of them). Give me an APP I can call up just before I electrocute myself. And think how useful an APP would be when confronted with a flat tire on a hot afternoon on the hwy. I may even have an APP that allows me a rough diagnostic of car trouble, with indication on where to go, given my GPS position, and an offer to alert the garage to prepare the nuts and bolts.

Do I go to a public office to get a document? Give me the APP as I enter the door: I’ll know where to go, what to fill out, how to fill out the form; it may even allow me to put a name to the face behind the glass partition.

APPs for menus in restaurants can give me detailed information on the ingredients – I may even watch the cook prepare the dish. APPs in supermarket stores will give me information on products on the shelves: the labels are getting overcrowded. The camera may be equipped to read code bars. I’ll then know the price at once, the price per unit, and may use the code bar to check the price of the competition – in the store[2].

The whole world of production might be transformed. Reams of instructions that gather dust in a corner of the office can be portioned into usable APPs. Such APPs may be fitted to allow for feed-back. APPS may assist the worker on the yard. An APP may ensure that he has viewed and complied with security regulations.

And contrary to written instructions APPs can be updated at any time – even as “background activity” on the net. APPs need not be complete, but they may provide links and “further reading”.

Designing useful APPs requires a paradigm shift. The information has to be structured situationally, fitting the intended experience, rather than simply logically and sequentially. Knowledge has to be seen as a system rather than a discipline, where the APP addresses one nodal point at a time. This implies pouring knowledge in different containers – APPs. Ongoing education – and long distance learning might be transformed by it (and maybe Diplo, if they soon start to produce usable APPs): APPs do not replace structured discipline, but go one step further – teach the student how to apply it in a real time situation.

APPs provide usable information when I need it, and hopefully tailored to my needs – even to my idiosyncrasies. I’m sure that, if Apple were to set its mind to it, a meta-APP could be designed that defines me to whatever APP I download, and reshuffles it to fit my quirks. All right, there may be privacy questions involved – but we can sort them out.

Come to think of the mobile phone may be the ultimate enabler…

[1]           I’ve just encountered an APP for migraine: it allows the patient to record each event and inform the MD in more than vague anecdotic and subjective fashion.

[2]           I have realized meanwhile why stores are so slow in introducing the latest technology that allows customers to scan products with a handheld scanner before it is placed into the basket. I no longer have tiresomely to walk about seeking the hidden machine which will reveal the price information to me: the information is on the scanner. And since the scanner also provides the total each time I add a good to the basket I can better control my buying impulse. Not good for sales, I’m afraid…