March 23, 2009
Wolfram Alpha: A New Kind of Question-Answering System
There has been much excitement recently over the upcoming launch of Wolfram Alpha. This is a new question-answering system developed by Stephen Wolfram, inventor of Mathematica, and it is scheduled for a beta launch in May. Wolfram has been providing demos to industry insiders. I haven’t had a demo yet, but I have learned what I could from reading articles by Nova Spivak (“Wolfram Alpha computes answers to factual questions. This is going to be big”) and Doug Lenat (“I was positively impressed with Wolfram Alpha”). And this weekend I spoke with William Tunstall-Pedoe, CEO of True Knowledge, who also got a demo. Many of my examples and conclusions come from conversation with William (thanks!). Since life is short and so is the attention of web readers, I’ll give the rest of my thoughts in bullet form.
What it is: A new kind of question-answering system.
- Math: “2+2″ and then a few simple math questions: “integrate xsin^4xdx”, “what is the square root of 18″ etc.
- Business: “gdp france” showed amount and graph of how it changed over time. “gdp france/germany” showed graph with both amounts and the ratio
- “internet users in Europe”: Showed total, and a chart of usage by country in Europe, at the current time, specifically highlighting the biggest and smallest
- “ISS”: generates a graphic rendition of the international space station orbiting earth and updating in real-time
- “tides in san Francisco”: showed a graph of tides over time, where the times were listed in the local time regime current in the late 19th century for those data points. “tide NYC 11/12/1922” gave a single answer.
- “weather”: showed graph of average temperature in Cambridge, MA (where Stephen was when doing the demo). Based on reverse IP lookup.
- Computational fluid dynamics: typing in the name of a specific aerofoil produced a picture of that aerofoil along with its differential equations.
- stock prices: “MSFT CSCO” showed comparison chart
- chemicals: Substances at temperature or pressure, got physical properties calculated. “H2SO4” showed a diagram and chemical properties. “5 molar h2s04″ did something cool, I don’t know what.
- genome sequences: “AGTAG” shows sequences from the human genome that match that pattern
- data about people: “How old is Barack Obama” gives his age now. “When was Alan Turing born” gives the answer. “How old is Alan Turing” (a trick question) gives an error message with no human-readable explanation (True Knowledge, by contrast, tells you exactly why this is a trick question).
Coverage of data: It answers questions over the following types of structured data:
- static tables and databases (e.g. a database of internet usage by country by year)
- dynamic data feeds (e.g. historical stock market data, position of space shuttle, weather)
- numerical inference (e.g. math questions)
- numerical computations and simulations (e.g. tides, astronomy, chemistry)
November 19, 2007
Natural Language and the Semantic Web: ISWC Keynote talk
I gave an invited keynote talk last week at The 6th International Semantic Web Conference and the 2nd Asian Semantic Web Conference, 2007. The abstract for the talk is below. The image below links to the original video and presentation slides.
The live presentation (and video) contains technical demos that aren’t in the slides. Some of the demos are already available inside Powerlabs (e.g. Powermouse, which lets you browse and query our semantic database of facts extracted from Wikipedia), while some of these are still internal (e.g. an open search box, and output of our natural language system on full sentences). I also gave some detailed walk-through showing how Powerset takes advantage of external semantic resources like Wordnet and Freebase.
For me, the most fun part of the talk was toward the end, where I got to speculate on how ecosystem effects can make natural language search and the semantic web become deeper and more powerful more quickly than people might expect. For example, advertisers, publishers, and vertical search sites will be able to contribute ontologies that enable them to get more users, better internal search, and more revenue, while having as a side effect that the broad search engines get more knowledgeable about different domains.
The questions afterward were also challenging and interesting.
POWERSET – Natural Language and the Semantic Web
August 9, 2007
Powerlabs internal launch
Today was an exciting milestone for Powerset. We released the first version of the Powerlabs platform for our employees to try out. The Powerlabs platform is a framework for innovation in which a community of users can generate and refine ideas as they interact with products and concepts. It combines elements of social networking, crowd-sourcing, and social search (among other buzzwords that, in our case, really make a difference).
It turns out that the product team have been using Powerlabs to improve Powerlabs itself, so there were already a large set of ideas and evaluations by the time the rest of the employees got to try the system out. And we are already finding the system to be addictive: within a couple hours of internal release (the time it took Product Manager Mark Johnson and me to play a few matches of Dance Dance Revolution), already over 50 ideas had been generated and evaluated!
With this much interest from our own small number of employees, it is amazing to think about the kind of ideas, creativity, and feedback we are going to get from the 16,000 people already signed up for Powerlabs launch in September! (You can sign up at the Powerlabs Website).
Powerlabs is so cool, in fact, that we have already started talking about potentially offering this as a service to other companies who want community innovation around their products (both internal employees and outside users). So the race is now on to see which takes off faster: a radical new way to search using natural language, or a radical new way to create products!