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)
March 25, 2008
Semantic Web Patterns: A Guide to Semantic Technologies – ReadWriteWeb
Alex Iskold wrote a nice article that provides an overview and categorization of semantic web approaches, technologies, and companies.
Here are a few key points from the article, interspersed with some of my own perspectives.
- The Semantic Web is now capturing broad attention, and has been called the number one trend in 2008 (by Richard MacManus, founder of ReadWriteWeb).
- Yahoo! recently announced that their search engine is going to support RDF and microformats. This will provide incentive for publishers to use semantic markup in their content. This echoes a point I made in my semantic web keynote talk last year (see below), that search engines would create incentives to drive the semantic web faster than people may have expected.
- Several companies are now offering web services to support or automate semantic markup. These include the Semantify web service from Dapper, the Open Calais web service from Reuters/ClearForest, and the Semantic Hacker API from TextWise.
- There are top-down and bottom-up approaches to the Semantic Web. Bottom-up approaches require people to enter semantic markup. This can be in strong semantic web formats using standards like RDF, or in lightweight markup formats, like Microformats.
- Search is potentially a killer app of semantic technologies. The author argues that semantic technologies alone are not enough to deliver better search, but when used in combination with the other search techniques they might be better. I agree that the combination is best. But I disagree with the statement that
Google’s algorithm, which is based on statistical analysis, deals just fine with semantic entities like people, cities, and companies.
I think there is a significant gap today between what we are used to with search engines and what is possible with stronger semantic approaches, and this will become clearer over the next year.
- Contextual technologies use semantic markup within the page and combine that with external content and services. Thus a user does not have to search in order to benefit from the semantics. Examples include Snap, Yahoo Shortcuts, and SmartLinks. Such technologies are making their way into the browser, where they will have wider appeal and accelerate the trend toward the semantic web.
- Semantic databases focus on building and utilizing structure semantic information (as opposed to marking up unstructured content). Twine, by Radar Networks, and Freebase, by Metaweb, are two examples. (I am personally familiar with Freebase as we are integrating this within our offerings at Powerset.) Over time, we will see increasing synergies between the semantic technologies based on structured and unstructured data.
I highly recommend this article to people interested in semantic technologies and search. For my own perspective on the relationship between natural language, search, and the semantic web, you can see the video and presentation of my Keynote Talk at the 2007 International Semantic Web Conference, entitled Natural Language and the Semantic Web.
January 20, 2008
Crunchies 2007 Award Ceremony and After Party
Yesterday I attended The Crunchies, an award ceremony to honor innovation in the tech community. The event was organized by TechCrunch, GigaOm, ReadWriteWeb, and VentureBeat.
My personal highlights from the award ceremony were:
- Live performance by The Richter Scales, singing “Here Comes Another Bubble“.
In case you haven’t seen the video before, it is must viewing. It combines melody from Billy Joel with acapella (my favorite kind of music) with technology startup themes and humor. The video opens with a line from my friend and Powerset investor and board member Peter Thiel stating there is absolutely not a bubble in technology. The song later features lyrics such as “Babies blogging in the womb” and “I sold my twenties for a worthless pile of tech stock”. My friends in the group, Tom Shields and James Currier, invited me to come sing with them sometime, which could be a lot of fun.
- Fake Steve Jobs accepting the Crunchies award on behalf of Apple for the IPod.
His speech is totally hilarious. The whole speech is like one big inside joke. I had previously read his book “Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs, a Parody“, an autobiography of Steve Jobs as told by Fake Steve Jobs, and this video conveys the parody well.
- A video of my friend Nova Spivak (Founder of Radar Networks) answering the question about the most important technology innovation. Given the position he has taken in recent panels we have been on together, one might have thought he would talk about the Semantic Web, but instead Nova argued passionately about the virtues of Cool Whip!
He illustrated many uses of the technology and had had the crowd rolling with laughter. This also inspired us to attempt to have a cool-whip afterparty, which fizzled out.
- Running video commentary by Sarah Meyers. Even without the platinum wig and corset she wore during her Party Crashers career (including crashing Powerset’s Series A Funding Party), she’s still adorable and very personable.
- Luke Nosek from The Founders Fund presenting the awards for “Best Business Model” and “Most Likely To Succeed”. While many of the candidates were Founders Fund portfolio companies, I appreciated that he was wearing a Powerset t-shirt (with the grunting pigeon) under his jacket.
The After Party took place in the famous Green Room. My group had to wait a little while to get into the party, which exceeded the capacity of the room. The wait itself was fun because we were joined in line by MC Hammer. The party was enlivened by a photo activity sponsored by Zivity. In his award introduction Luke Nosek had described Zivity as “Myspace for Grownups.” People took photos with props, costumes, and attitudes, accompanied by several Zivity models. I included a photo of me (in cowboy hat) with Pearl and Cyan in this post. The rest of the collection is fun.
Overall, while the event had its ups and downs, there was really a nice sense of community and cameraderie in both the presentations and in the audience. The award recipients made really brief and generally humble speeches (with the exception of Fake Steve Jobs, of course), most of them thanking their engineers and their moms. The videos shown during the ceremony were mostly sent in by nominated companies. Altogether it felt more like a summer camp show than the Oscars and it is good to see our community not taking itself too seriously. On that note, it was great to see Om Malik on stage at the event shortly after recovering from a heart attack that had left him hospitalized and the subject of much concern among his friends. When people saw him at the event there much applause and support.
I took some photos of the event myself and plan to post them here soon.