May 06, 2009

Could be important as Google?

BBC news reported last week on a web tool that "could be as important as Google", according to some experts. Wolfram Alpha is the brainchild of British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram. The free program which will be launched this month aims to answer questions directly, rather than display web pages in response to a query like a search engine.
The new tool uses a technique known as natural language processing to return answers. Dr Wolfram said that Alpha has solved many of the problems of interpreting people's questions. "We thought there would be a huge amount of ambiguity in search terms, but it turns out not to be the case," he said. In addition, he said, the system had got "pretty good at removing linguistic fluff", the kinds of words that are not necessary for the system to find and compute the relevant data.

But Dr Boris Katz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a natural language expert, said he was "disappointed" by Dr Wolfram's "dismissal of English syntax as 'fluff'''. "I believe he is misguided in treating language as a nuisance instead of trying to understand the way it organises concepts into structures that require understanding and harnessing."Dr Katz is the head of the Start project, a natural language processing tool that claims to be "the world's first web-based question answering system". It has been on the web since December 1993. Like Alpha, the system searches a series of organised databases to return relevant answers to search queries. However, it only uses public databases and runs on a much smaller scale than Alpha.

Web companies have also harnessed natural language processing. For example, Powerset uses technology developed at the Palo Alto Research Center, the former research laboratories of Xerox. The company is attempting to build a similar search engine "that reads and understands every sentence on the Web". In May 2008, the company released a tool that allowed people to search parts of Wikipedia. Two months later, it was acquired by Microsoft.

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