[Paleopsych] NYT: At I.B.M., That Google Thing Is So Yesterday
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Fri Jan 28 16:18:23 UTC 2005
At I.B.M., That Google Thing Is So Yesterday
New York Times, 4.12.26
By JAMES FALLOWS
SUDDENLY, the computer world is interesting again. The last three months of
2004 brought more innovation, faster, than users have seen in years. The
recent flow of products and services differs from those of previous hotly
competitive eras in two ways. The most attractive offerings are free, and
they are concentrated in the newly sexy field of "search."
Google, current heavyweight among systems for searching the Internet, has not
let up from its pattern of introducing features and products every few weeks.
Apart from its celebrated plan to index the contents of several university
libraries, Google has recently released "beta" (trial) versions of Google
Scholar, which returns abstracts of academic papers and shows how often they
are cited by other scholars, and Google Suggest, a weirdly intriguing feature
that tries to guess the object of your search after you have typed only a
letter or two. Give it "po" and it will show shortcuts to poetry, PokÃ©mon,
post office, and other popular searches. (If you stop after "p" it will
suggest "Paris Hilton.") In practice, this is more useful than it sounds.
Microsoft, heavyweight of the rest of computerdom, has scrambled to catch up
with search innovations from Google and others. On Dec. 10, a company
official made a shocking disclosure. For years Microsoft had emphasized the
importance of "WinFS," a fundamentally new file system that would make it
much easier for users to search and manage information on their own
computers. Last summer, the company said that WinFS would not be ready in
time for inclusion with its next version of Windows, called Longhorn. The
latest news was that WinFS would not be ready even for the release after
that, which pushed its likely delivery at least five years into the future.
This seemed to put Microsoft entirely out of the running in desktop search.
But within three days, it had released a beta version of its new desktop
search utility, which it had previously said would not be available for
Meanwhile, a flurry of mergers, announcements and deals from smaller players
produced a dazzling variety of new search possibilities. Early this month
Yahoo said it would use the excellent indexing program X1 as the basis for
its own desktop search system, which it would distribute free to its users.
The search company Autonomy, which has specialized in indexing corporate
data, also got into the new competition, as did Ask Jeeves, EarthLink, and
smaller companies like dTSearch, Copernic, Accoona and many others.
I have most of these systems running all at once on my computer, and if they
don't melt it down or blow it up I will report later on how each works. But
today's subject is the virtually unpublicized search strategy of another
industry heavyweight: I.B.M.
Last week I visited the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, 20
miles north of New York, to hear six I.B.M. researchers describe their
company's concept of "the future of search." Concepts and demos are different
from products being shipped and sold, so it is unfair to compare what I.B.M.
is promising with what others are doing now. Still, the promise seems great.
Two weeks before our meeting, I.B.M. released OmniFind, the first program to
take advantage of its new strategy for solving search problems. This
approach, which it calls unstructured information management architecture, or
UIMA, will, according to I.B.M., lead to a third generation in the ability to
retrieve computerized data. The first generation, according to this scheme,
is simple keyword match - finding all documents that contain a certain name
or address. This is all most desktop search systems can do - or need to do,
because you're mainly looking for an e-mail message or memorandum you already
know is there. The next generation is the Web-based search now best performed
by Google, which uses keywords and many other indicators to match a query to
a list of sites.
I.B.M. says that its tools will make possible a further search approach, that
of "discovery systems" that will extract the underlying meaning from stored
material no matter how it is structured (databases, e-mail files, audio
recordings, pictures or video files) or even what language it is in. The
specific means for doing so involve steps that will raise suspicions among
many computer veterans. These include "natural language processing,"
computerized translation of foreign languages and other efforts that have
broken the hearts of artificial-intelligence researchers through the years.
But the combination of ever-faster computers and ever-evolving programming
allowed the systems I saw to succeed at tasks that have beaten their
One example is question answering. Google-type search engines are fabulous at
retrieving random data, but mediocre at handling subtler queries. Using
Google or Ask Jeeves, you can eventually find out how many of the world's Web
pages are in each of the major languages, but it's slow and frustrating
compared with finding out, say, Mozart's birthplace. Jennifer Chu-Carroll of
I.B.M. demonstrated a system called Piquant, which analyzed the semantic
structure of a passage and therefore exposed "knowledge" that wasn't
explicitly there. After scanning a news article about Canadian politics, the
system responded correctly to the question, "Who is Canada's prime minister?"
even though those exact words didn't appear in the article.
The Semantic Analysis Workbench, demonstrated by Eric Brown and Dave
Ferrucci, showed another way of exposing latent meaning. The I.B.M. officials
said the best use for this technology would be customer-support call centers:
As representatives took notes on the problems people were having with their
cars or computers or prescription drugs, automatic interpretation of the
results would reveal useful patterns. Arthur Ciccolo, an I.B.M. strategist
for its unstructured-information project, said that call centers would be the
first place for new search systems to be applied. Genomic-research projects,
where unexpected correlations can be crucial, might be the second. But the
demonstration suggested another likely market, since every bit of sample text
was a transcript of intercepted phone calls, apparently among people
suspected of terrorism. ("He made two calls from Frankfurt on these dates ...
") Whether these were real, I still don't know.
Salim Roukos demonstrated a system I would like to have tomorrow: an
assortment of news headlines, roughly comparable to Google News, but from
non-English language sources. The system automatically - and comprehensibly -
translated the headlines and leads of each article. If you wanted to read
more, you pressed a button and in 15 or 20 seconds had a good-enough
MR. CICCOLO, the search strategist, said that in a way his team was trying to
match - and reverse - what Google has achieved. "As Google use became
widespread, people began asking why it was so much easier to find material on
the external Web than it was on their own computers or in their company's Web
sites," he said. "Google sets a very high standard for that Web. We would
like to set the next standard, so that people will find it so easy to do
things at work that they'll wonder why they can't do them on the Internet."
How soon might this happen? He said, with a chuckle, "Well, if I could freeze
what everyone else is doing, it could be in two years." The great part is,
the competition won't be frozen. At least this part of the future looks
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. E-mail:
tfiles at nytimes.com
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