[AI] Search startup ready to challenge Google

vishnu ramchandani vishnuhappy at yahoo.com
Wed Sep 19 02:27:54 EDT 2007


Search startup ready to challenge Google

AP

Barney Pell - President and CEO of Powerset, a new
search engine that uses ‘natural-language’ technology
to make Web search easier - hopes to demonstrate
that Google isn’t as smart as most people think

There’s no business like search business. And this is
precisely why a US-based start-up called Powerset is
pursuing a particularly challenging goal: It’s
aiming to outshine Internet’s search giants, Google,
with its own new search software.

After nearly two years of hushed development, the San
Francisco-based company is finally providing a peek at
a “natural-language” technology that is supposed
to make it easier to communicate with search engines.

The algorithms in Powerset are programmed to
understand search requests submitted in plain English,
a change from the “keyword” system used by Google,
Yahoo, Microsoft and the owners of the other leading
engines.

The distinction means Web surfers will theoretically
be able to get more meaningful results by typing more
precise search requests in the form of straightforward
questions like “What did Steve Jobs say about Apple?”
instead of entering an ungrammatical mishmash like
“Apple Steve Jobs said.”

Barney Pell, Powerset’s co-founder and chief
executive, likens the hit-and-miss-process of
searching with keywords to talking to a 2-year-old.

“In one sense, you are happy you can talk to it at
all, but you still really want it to grow up so you
can hold a real conversation,” he said.

This isn’t the first time a search engine has tried to
understand simple English, but Powerset has drawn more
attention because its natural-language technology
is being licensed from the Palo Alto Research Centre.

Better known as PARC, the Xerox Corp subsidiary is
renowned for hatching breakthroughs – such as the
computer mouse and the graphical interface for
personal
computers – that were later commercialised by other
companies.

“We have the best natural-language search technology
that has ever been developed,” Pell, an artificial
intelligence expert, said.

Backed by $12.5 million in venture capital, Powerset
is gradually opening its testing ground, dubbed
Powerlabs, to 16,000 people who signed up to get an
early glimpse at the search engine. 

The start-up is so confident that its methods are
superior to Google that Powerlabs will present some
answers alongside what its rival returns when asked
the same questions. Powerset is requiring its users to
vote on which engine produced better results before
they are allowed to enter another search request.

Search Antecedents

Other search engines have previously promised to
understand conversational English with little success.

Ask Jeeves was founded in the 1990s on the premise
that Internet search requests should be presented as
simple questions. It frustrated users with too
many irrelevant answers.

After nearly failing in the dot-com bust, the company
embraced the keyword approach to search and abandoned
its mascot – a cartoon butler named Jeeves
– to distance itself from the days it relied on
natural-language algorithms. It is now known simply as
Ask.com.

Industry analyst Charlene Li of Forrester Research is
sceptical about Powerset’s prospects, too. She doubts
Powerset will be able to comprehend all the
different ways that people seeking the same type of
information can phrase their questions.

For instance, the questions “What caused the collapse
of Enron?” and “What caused the downfall of Enron?”
typically produce different search results even
though they are essentially asking the same thing, Li
said. That’s because computers have trouble
recognising synonyms and other subtle nuances in
language.

“Understanding the meaning of many words is difficult
without people involved,” she said.


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