November 19, 2006
Google and Powerset in the Sunday Times
Powerset was mentioned today in
href="http://ww.wtimesonline.co.uk">The Sunday Times in an article
entitled: href="http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2095-2459650.html">Quest for
last word in search, by Paul Durman.
The article interviews my friend Peter Norvig, now director of research at Google, and discusses natural language search. Here are some relevant excerpts:
…Google is trying to find better ways to give its users the information and answers they want. â€œWe are at the very beginning of search,â€ said Norvig. He said his colleagues were â€œdisappointedâ€ that most searches still start by typing a couple of words into a box on a web page.
Google is also working on speech-recognition technology so that, within a few years, you will simply be able to â€œtellâ€ your mobile phone what you are looking for, and Google will go off and find it.
But the holy grail is natural language, or semantic, search â€” enabling users to pose queries, not with a couple of words, but with a properly phrased question.
Todayâ€™s search engines can help with something simple, such as â€œwhat is the capital of Japan?â€ But they struggle with more complex questions, such as â€œwhat companies has IBM bought in the past five years?â€
The enormous profitability of search advertising is attracting new challengers to this field. Powerset, which hopes to develop a next-generation search engine based on natural language processing, recently raised $12.5m (Â£6.6m) with the help of a stellar cast of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, including the founders of PayPal and Napster, and two early â€œGooglersâ€.
Google is relaxed about the threat. Norvig said: â€œAnybody who is concentrating on search is great because it pushes all of us to get better. You have to wonder where theyâ€™re going. Is this a complete solution or is this a component of a solution?â€ Norvigâ€™s colleague Louis Monier â€” the French founder of the Alta Vista search engine, who is now at Google working on a secret project â€” said he gets a dozen invitations a year to join new search companies.
…It is often said that the rival that will overthrow Google is only a click away. Monier is sceptical. â€œItâ€™s very difficult to innovate on the scale that we do,â€ he said. â€œYou need a really radical idea, and need to execute it well.â€
I think both Peter and Louis are right: Search is in its early days, and natural language is the future of search. But it’s both difficult to enable natural language search at all, and to do it on a scale like Google is a harder matter still. I’m not sure I would be “relaxed” about the disruption that natural language search will involve. But I’m really happy that this discussion about natural language search is now happening among the major players, and that Powerset is helping to push the envelope.
Posted by barney at November 19, 2006 10:39 pm
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