[Paleopsych] NYT: Enough Keyword Searches. Just Answer My Question.
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Sun Jun 12 19:00:25 UTC 2005
Enough Keyword Searches. Just Answer My Question.
By JAMES FALLOWS
SEARCH engines are so powerful. And they are so pathetically weak.
When it comes to digging up a specific name, date, phrase or price,
search engines are unstoppable. The same is true for details from the
previously concealed past. For better and worse, any information about
any of us - true or false, flattering or compromising - that has ever
appeared on a publicly available site is likely to be retrievable
forever, or until we run out of electricity for the server farms.
Carefree use of e-mail was once a sign of sophistication. Now to trust
confidential information to e-mail is to be a rube. Despite the
sneering term snail mail, plain old letters are the form of
long-distance communication least likely to be intercepted,
misdirected, forwarded, retrieved or otherwise inspected by someone
you didn't have in mind.
Yet for anything but simple keyword queries, even the best search
engines are surprisingly ineffective.
Recently, for example, I was trying to track the changes in
California's spending on its schools. In the 1960's, when I was in
public school there, the legend was that only Connecticut spent more
per student than California did. Now, the legend is that only the
likes of Louisiana and Mississippi spend less. Was either belief true?
When I finally called an education expert on a Monday morning, she
gave me the answer off the top of her head. (Answer: right in spirit,
exaggerated in detail.) But that was only after I'd wasted what seemed
like hours over the weekend with normal search tools. If it sounds
easy, try using keyword searches to find consistent state-by-state
data covering the last 40 years.
We live with these imperfections by trying to outguess the engines -
what if I put "per capita spending by states" in quotation marks? -
and by realizing that they're right for some jobs and wrong for
One branch of the federal government is desperate enough for a better
search tool that its efforts could be a stimulus for fundamental
long-term improvements. Last week, I spent a day at a workshop near
Washington for the Aquaint project, whose work is unclassified but has
gone virtually unnoticed in the news media. The name stands for
"advanced question answering for intelligence," and it refers to a
joint effort by the National Security Agency, the C.I.A. and other
federal intelligence organizations. To computer scientists, "question
answering," or Q.A., means a form of search that does not just match
keywords but also scans, parses and "understands" vast quantities of
information to respond to queries. An ideal Q.A. system would let me
ask, "How has California's standing among states in per-student school
funds changed since the 1960's?" - and it would draw from all relevant
sources to find the right answer.
In the real Aquaint program, the questions are more likely to be, "Did
any potential terrorist just buy an airplane ticket?" or "How strong
is the new evidence of nuclear programs in Country X?" The
presentations I saw, by scientists at universities and private
companies, reported progress on seven approaches to the problem. (The
new I.B.M. search technology discussed here last year is also part
of the Aquaint project.)
There will be more to say later about this effort. On the bright side,
apart from whatever the project does for national security, its
innovations could eventually improve civilian search systems, much as
the Pentagon's Arpanet eventually became the civilian Internet. Of
course, the dark potential in ever more effective
search-and-surveillance systems is also obvious.
For the moment, consider several here-and-now innovations that can
improve on the standard Google-style list of search hits. Ask
Jeeves, whose site is Ask.com, recently introduced two features
that enhance its long-established question-and-answer format. One
tries to recast search terms into a question that can be answered on
the Web; the other offers suggestions to broaden or narrow the search.
Answers.com, a free version of what was once called GuruNet,
combines conventional search results with questions and answers.
Two related sites, Clusty.com and its parent, Vivisimo.com,
categorize the hits from each search, producing a kind of table of
contents of results. Another site, Grokker.com, does something
similar in a visual form; it is free online or $49 for a desktop
version. And the bizarrely named but extremely useful MrSapo.com
has become my favorite search portal, because it allows quick, easy
comparisons of the results of the same search on virtually any major
FINALLY, some updates. Last month, I complained about those
ill-designed Web sites that force users to re-enter information from
the start if any error occurs. The real solution to this problem is
better design, but of the many work-arounds, the best is the free
utility Roboform, from roboform.com.
In the same column, I mentioned that Google Maps' satellite view of
the vice presidential residence in Washington had been camouflaged
with a protective thoroughness not applied to the White House, the
Pentagon and other significant structures. It turns out that at least
one other center of power has received similar treatment; zoom in on
downtown Albany to see what it is. (A Google spokesman says that the
company itself has never blurred or altered the photos but that it
simply posts what it gets from "third parties.") It also turns out
that a crystal-clear aerial view of every bit of the vice presidential
compound is readily available - not on Google, but on another free,
public, mainstream site. Ever vigilant, I will say no more. But the
contrast illustrates the inanity of many "homeland security" measures,
which gum up life for the average citizen while offering no genuine
protection against real threats.
The idea of pointless protective gestures brings us back to the
intelligence agencies and Aquaint.
As the briefings went on last week, I began to notice that they were
not being delivered in American-accented English. The first project
was introduced by a man born in Romania. The second, by a native Pole.
The third, by a scientist who had emigrated from Russia. The fourth,
by one from Greece. The fifth presenter was from New Zealand, the
sixth was another Romanian and only the seventh sounded as if he had
been reared in the United States. All the rest had come from around
the world to study, in several cases to start companies, and now to
lend their skills to this national security effort.
Several of the foreign-born scientists told me afterward that their
counterparts at home would have a much harder time following their
example, because of post-9/11 visa restrictions to keep America
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.
E-mail: tfiles at nytimes.com.
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