The supercomputer in your palm


cloud1.jpgCloud computing brings many benefits. It can reduce costs, improve operational efficiencies, and make computing infrastructures far more flexible. But there are other benefits that are not discussed as much. One of them is the fact that cloud computing effectively turns any device into a supercomputer.
Google has just demonstrated this with the release of its latest feature for the Android mobile operating system. Called Google Voice Actions, it lets users interact with their Android phones almost entirely by voice alone.
Users of the feature (available in Android version 2.2 and above), are able to speak instructions to their phones, and also to dictate text. "Send text to Andy Jenkins. Meet me upstairs at Johnny's Bar" will send the text directly to him - no extra interaction needed. But what if you need to reserve a table, and don't have a number? Saying "Call Johnny's Bar in Madison, Wisconsin" will cause the system to interact with Google Maps, look up the number, and automatically place the call
But what is "the system"? Today's mobile devices, while powerful, are still limited by computational constraints. The real system resides in the cloud. Google's Voice Actions program sends the recorded voice signal to the cloud, which is where the analysis and the searching takes place.
This is the beauty of the cloud. Its ability to devote almost limitless computing power to a problem (in this case, interpreting intuitive search commands) puts it far ahead of any device that resides in a pocket, or on a desk.
We are seeing this development in other services. Google Goggles, for example, uses the cloud to search for everything from local landmarks, through to books and logos, purely by analysing images and, where appropriate, GPS data. 
Not only does cloud computing unlock computational resources, but it also unleashes a plethora of data resources, too. Being able to reference data in the cloud makes a device seem omniscient. Instead of just searching for contact information stored on a phone using a natural language interface, it theoretically becomes possible to search for anyone.
As search algorithms and voice and picture processing techniques improve, we will begin to see this concept take hold, and profoundly change the nature of search. Imagine if, for example, we could ask our phone "Find me a sociology professor in the state of New York," or if we could take a picture of a designer coffee mug and say "are these for sale in anywhere San Francisco?".
Such capabilities are coming - but only because we are able to rely on the cloud to do the extensive data mining and number crunching work that complements intuitive mobile phone interfaces. In the next few years, the combination of these two technologies will alter our lives in ways that we have not yet conceived.
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.