Thursday, September 20, 2007

Search startup ready to challenge Google

Barney Pell - President and CEO of Powerset, a new search engine that uses ‘natural-language’ technology to make Web search easier - hopes to demonstrate that Google isn’t as smart as most people think

There’s no business like search business. And this is precisely why a US-based start-up called Powerset is pursuing a particularly challenging goal: It’s aiming to outshine Internet’s search giants, Google, with its own new search software.

After nearly two years of hushed development, the San Francisco-based company is finally providing a peek at a “natural-language” technology that is supposed to make it easier to communicate with search engines.

The algorithms in Powerset are programmed to understand search requests submitted in plain English, a change from the “keyword” system used by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the owners of the other leading engines.

The distinction means Web surfers will theoretically be able to get more meaningful results by typing more precise search requests in the form of straightforward questions like “What did Steve Jobs say about Apple?” instead of entering an ungrammatical mishmash like “Apple Steve Jobs said.”

Barney Pell, Powerset’s co-founder and chief executive, likens the hit-and-miss-process of searching with keywords to talking to a 2-year-old.

“In one sense, you are happy you can talk to it at all, but you still really want it to grow up so you can hold a real conversation,” he said.

This isn’t the first time a search engine has tried to understand simple English, but Powerset has drawn more attention because its natural-language technology is being licensed from the Palo Alto Research Centre.

Better known as PARC, the Xerox Corp subsidiary is renowned for hatching breakthroughs – such as the computer mouse and the graphical interface for personal computers – that were later commercialised by other companies.

“We have the best natural-language search technology that has ever been developed,” Pell, an artificial intelligence expert, said.

Backed by $12.5 million in venture capital, Powerset is gradually opening its testing ground, dubbed Powerlabs, to 16,000 people who signed up to get an early glimpse at the search engine.

The start-up is so confident that its methods are superior to Google that Powerlabs will present some answers alongside what its rival returns when asked the same questions. Powerset is requiring its users to vote on which engine produced better results before they are allowed to enter another search request.

Search Antecedents

Other search engines have previously promised to understand conversational English with little success.

Ask Jeeves was founded in the 1990s on the premise that Internet search requests should be presented as simple questions. It frustrated users with too many irrelevant answers.

After nearly failing in the dot-com bust, the company embraced the keyword approach to search and abandoned its mascot – a cartoon butler named Jeeves – to distance itself from the days it relied on natural-language algorithms. It is now known simply as Ask.com.

Industry analyst Charlene Li of Forrester Research is sceptical about Powerset’s prospects, too. She doubts Powerset will be able to comprehend all the different ways that people seeking the same type of information can phrase their questions.

For instance, the questions “What caused the collapse of Enron?” and “What caused the downfall of Enron?” typically produce different search results even though they are essentially asking the same thing, Li said. That’s because computers have trouble recognising synonyms and other subtle nuances in language.

“Understanding the meaning of many words is difficult without people involved,” she said.

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