4 min read

an experiment in navigating the knowledge frontier beyond search

Lately, I've been experimenting with interfaces for large language models (LLMs) in my free time. The fruit of this labor is something I'm calling "curie," an exploratory and sense-making tool designed to delve into complex topics.


the limitations of traditional search interfaces

It's become painfully obvious that traditional search interfaces like Google are proving inadequate for our exploratory needs. Its top results are not always helpful, even for simple factual searches, often resulting in a jumble of ads and irrelevant content. Even Marissa Mayer, who designed Google Search’s early interface (and a future board member of OpenAI?), has admitted that she sees “more ads, more links that might as well be ads and more links to spammy web pages.” When it comes to search interfaces, the onus of discovery is on the searchers themselves. We have to ask for what we want. Even then, we might not receive it.

As AI-powered chatbots supplement search bars to assist users in their search journeys, they excel at simplifying search where it is worth discarding the context to get to the root of understanding. Yet, ironically, this streamlined approach often bypasses the potential avenues of discovery, propelling users directly to their destination and disregarding the journey itself. Links, which could invite curiosity and further exploration, are only included out of obligation, rather than invitation.

beyond search bar: the physician vs the librarian paradigm

Elan Ulendrof eloquently categorizes informational products into two archetypes: the Physician and the Librarian. She writes

The Physician's primary aim is to protect you from context. In diagnosing or treating you, they draw on years of training, research, and personal experience, but rather than presenting that information to you in its raw form, they condense and synthesize. This is for good reason: When you go to a doctor’s office, your primary aim is not to have your curiosity sparked or to dive into primary sources; you want answers, in the form of diagnosis or treatment. The Physician saves you time and shelters you from information that might be misconstrued or unnecessarily anxiety-provoking.
In contrast, the Librarian's primary aim is to point you toward context. In answering your questions, they draw on years of training, research, and personal experience, and they use that to pull you into a conversation with a knowledge system, and with the humans behind that knowledge system. The Librarian may save you time in the short term by getting you to a destination more quickly. But in the long term, their hope is that the destination will reveal itself to be a portal. They find thought enriching, rather than laborious, and understand their expertise to be in wayfinding rather than solutions. Sometimes you ask a Librarian a question and they point you to a book that is an answer to a question you didn't even think to ask. Sometimes you walk over to the stacks to retrieve the book, only for a different book to catch your eye instead. This too is success to the Librarian.

Thus, we have:

  • The Physician: Streamlined and protective, offering synthesized answers devoid of the complexity and richness of the underlying information.
  • The Librarian: The antithesis, embracing context and inviting the user into a dialogue with the vastness of human knowledge. The journey is as valuable as the destination.

In this vein, curie is conceived not as a Physician, dispensing prescriptive information, but as a Librarian, inciting curiosity and enabling exploration.

introducing curie

Let's say, Alma, a medical student is interested in learning machine learning. To be an effective learner, you first have to be an effective meta-learner— not learning about the object of your inquiry itself but how the knowledge is structured and acquired within this subject, in other words, learning how to learn.

Curie simplifies this by revealing subtopics connected to your primary interest, aiding in constructing your conceptual framework.

Each node is a nexus of information. A single click opens a gateway to resources including books, GitHub repositories, videos, articles, and more, with hyperlinks as the focal point.

Each node also serves as an entryway to a dedicated space, allowing for in-depth exploration without the distraction of unrelated information. As you delve into these spaces, your path is preserved as a "trail of breadcrumbs," enabling you to retrace your steps or forge ahead through your discoveries. You can curate trails of web browsing and make them shareable, forkable, and maybe even globally searchable (if you make them public).

You can also enhance curie’s landscape with your own insights by adding personal nodes, thus tailoring the knowledge canvas to your unique understanding.

This is obviously not perfect, there are lots of different directions to take with this, but it is a start to get us thinking beyond search and chatbot interfaces. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Twiiter!