searches in the form of a question is this week's topic.
IPO, we've been knee-deep in company names with exclamation
points. But it looks like 2000 may be the year of the question
now many are familiar with the keyword-based interfaces needed
to access information from any database, be this a library
catalogue or a whole web index. Sure, you can get a
little bit fancy, refining your search with the use of operators
like AND, OR, and NOT. You can even search for whole phrases.
To a lot
of people, though, that feels cumbersome, and many wish they could
interact with databases more naturally, somewhat like Star Trek
characters who turn to the computer and ask it a question: "Computer,
where is Playa del Carmen?"
the computer hardly ever messes up. It never answers "Commander
del Carmen is not on board the ship." It usually says something
like "Playa del Carmen was a town on the planet Earth, country
Mexico." On further prompting, more relevant information
is supplied, albeit in a rather nasal voice: "It reached the
height of its popularity in the period AD 2020-2050 as a resort
city. A worldwide depression caused by a concentration of wealth
in the hands of margarita-peddling bar owners in Playa del Carmen
resulted in the Tequila Wars of 2183. Three weeks of armed
struggle between bar owners and the World Economic Council
resulted in the departure of thousands of wealthy, bored-looking
German teens, and complete economic collapse for the bar owners.
By the end of that century, little was left of Playa del
Jeeves the Answer?
scientists have been investigating natural language query interfaces
for some time.
first really significant deployment of natural language technology
on the Internet - essentially, the ability to ask a search engine
a question in normal English as if you were asking an human-like
but enormously overeducated android - has been Ask Jeeves.
a popular Internet search tool which points you towards several
secondary options which might help you narrow down your search
to the tool, database, category, or search engine which can help
you most, based on the structure and content of a naturally-worded
market valuation (the company is valued at about $2 billion),
however, may be largely due to the usefulness of such an interface
in responding to a pre-existing database of commonly asked questions.
Blue-chip corporate partners plan on using the Ask Jeeves
interface and technology to answer product questions online. Since
this can save companies money they might otherwise need to spend
on live customer support, it's seen as a promising niche.
us off to the underlying reality of Ask Jeeves' "natural language"
search technology. According to some industry watchers, the
responses provided by Ask Jeeves are canned sets of resources
which are largely assembled "brute force" by a team of developers
in response to the most commonly-asked questions (in the case
of the mass-market version of Jeeves, meant to connect users
with Internet resources, it's a database of millions of common
questions). To be sure, there is a lot more to it than this,
including a "matching algorithm," but it's hard to avoid the
feeling that natural language isn't the real point of Ask Jeeves.
vs. Google, Round 2
perfectly well, in fact, if you just type in keywords. Conversely,
many major search tools will do OK if you type in a question.
Google, for example, just ignores the common words such as "where"
and "is". I expected Jeeves to do better than Google on a "where"
question ("Where is Playa del Carmen?"), but he didn't. I was
given "Where can I buy" the movie "Carmen" on video or DVD, and
"What is the story of the opera Carmen" as leading search options.
The best options offered were mostly in the drop-down box of About.com
results, which begs the question: why not just go to About.com
in the first place?
supposedly not trained to answer questions, gave me playadelcarmen.com
as the first result, and a site promising a "map of Playa del
Carmen" wasn't far down the first page.
of the story: the kind of natural language technology to
which we're being exposed on the Internet at present has little
to do with natural language, and a lot to do with cute icons and
cuddly branding. Practically any major search engine could be modified
to accommodate the "ask me a question" trick. If this feature
proves popular enough, perhaps they will be.
there is obviously a vast, pent-up demand for more of this sort
of thing. The success of Jeeves should lure more university
researchers into the action.
more human than you think
In the meantime,
let's ask tougher questions about what Jeeves actually
does. The fact that a team of developers work on linking
common questions with answer sets should prompt us to face Jeeves
off more squarely against other human-guided net tools like
Yahoo's directory, Looksmart's editors (who also do custom question
answering), About.com's guides, Suite 101's editors, or
4anything.com's vertical sites. So why don't we? Jeeves' need
to maintain the fiction of the smart butler-robot means that
we don't get to see who is beside the scenes pulling Jeeves'
strings. We get answers, but not accountability.