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Ideas Whose Time Will Come

Now that many key technology pieces are falling in place, he said, the next important developments online will involve "social engineering,'' or shaping electronic communities in ways that help people connect more easily to do new things.

As an example, he cited Yahoo 360, a blogging service scheduled to launch in trial form next week that allows people to share their sites with others. And he announced that Yahoo had agreed to buy Flickr, a year-old photo-sharing site that lets people collectively "tag" images with labels for easier sorting.

Conference moderator Esther Dyson, left, talks to Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr. (Leslie Walker -- The Washington Post)

_____More From PC Forum_____
Check out Leslie Walker's Letter From PC Forum for observations on Yahoo's Flickr acquisition and a Palm founder's next big thing. (Mar. 21, 2005)
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Tagging was an emerging concept that sparked excitement here. Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake described tagging as a simple system that lets people add words or phrases to online content, which makes photos and other stuff sortable in new ways. Some see tagging as a new way of letting people index the Web; others call it a recipe for anarchy. One of the first Web sites to use tags was Del.icio.us, a site where people store and share "tagged" bookmarks.

Sounds simple, but more than 100 people crammed into a room for a lively debate about just how Web tags should work. Among those on hand were Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos; Udi Manber, the man who runs Amazon's A9.com search subsidiary; Google engineering vice president Adam Bosworth; and the chief executives of all kinds of Web companies, including Technorati Inc., LinkedIn Corp., Meetup Inc. and Socialtext Inc.

Yang's comments about what's coming down the Internet pike also highlighted a larger conference theme -- the de-geeking or mainstreaming of information technology as it moves into what geeks call the "real world." There was much brain-gnashing over education and health care, two industries that have resisted information technology makeovers. There was squishy talk, too, about the dearth of trust in American society and on the Internet.

And there was high-brow debate about emerging new structures of corporations, led by John Seely Brown and John Hagel, authors of a forthcoming book about the changing culture of work. The pair said new work patterns are changing how innovation occurs and threatening firms that remain buttoned-down. Brown described how "swarms" of small suppliers in China collaborated to drive down the cost of motorcycle production by 70 percent over four years.

Perhaps the most provocative talk was a primer on the human neocortex from Jeff Hawkins, the Palm Computing founder who now runs a research facility called the Redwood Neuroscience Institute. He described human intelligence as a memory machine that recognizes patterns it has seen before and re-crunches them with mathematical formulas to predict future patterns.

Hawkins said scientists are on the verge of creating thinking machines, an emerging technology he expects to form the basis of an entirely new industry analogous to what happened with the programmable computer. Though he released no details, Hawkins announced he is starting a company to take some of his brain theories to market, including a prototype software program his team developed that lets computers recognize crude visual patterns.

That, of course, called to mind Google and its core algorithms for finding relevant information online. But many in the audience seemed puzzled at the future Hawkins described -- perhaps because his ideas didn't match any of the patterns stored in their memory banks.

That seemed to be a common occurrence at this forward-looking conference.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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