September 17, 2007 / 7:08 PM / 12 years ago

Startup lets public test conversational Web search

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Powerset, an ambitious start-up that aims to let people search the Web using conversational speech instead of just keywords, began opening up its site on Monday for public testing of the technology.

An undated image courtesy of Powerset, an ambitious start-up that aims to let people search the Web using conversational speech instead of just keywords. Powerset began opening up its site on Monday for public testing of the technology. REUTERS/Handout

Powerset wants to leapfrog the current generation of search services from established providers Google Inc, the market leader, and Yahoo Inc, Google’s closest rival.

The 2-year-old company has licensed so-called natural language processing technology, developed over three decades at the legendary Xerox Corp PARC research center in Silicon Valley, to create consumer Web search services.

The goals of natural language search lie at the heart of the classic debate over artificial intelligence and whether computers are capable of understanding human speech.

Many existing uses of natural language search dodge that debate by simply tackling specialized jobs like answering basic customer service queries or making inferences about market sentiment for traders. By trying to create a general-purpose conversational search engine, Powerset is more ambitious.

Its technology reads every sentence on the Web to extract their meaning and build a semantic index of facts that take advantage of the sentences’ underlying linguistic structure.

In simple terms, the process is a computer-automated version of parsing sentences into subjects, verbs and objects.

“Search today is like talking to a 2-year-old,” Powerset Chief Executive Barney Pell said in a presentation at TechCrunch 40, a product showcase conference. “We actually index facts that occur on a page rather than just words.”

Current search engines rank pages by what keywords or credible inbound links are on them, among other criteria.

Pell, an entrepreneur with a doctorate in artificial intelligence (AI), and his two co-founders believe the exponential increases in computer processing power in recent years, combined with renewed research efforts in the field, promise to allow Powerset to overcome obstacles to AI.

The San Francisco-based firm is letting Web users sign up to try out features of the system at www.powerset.com/.

It plans to invite hundreds of users to its Powerset Labs site each week over the coming months. The feedback will help it finalize the underlying software algorithms before investing in the huge computer systems needed to start crawling the Web ahead of the launch of a consumer service next year.

Powerset is initially showcasing its service with a limited set of data — the more than 2 million articles created and edited by Wikipedia volunteers — rather than investing in the massive computing power needed to index the World Wide Web.

Powerset Labs will feature two technology demonstrations rather than full-featured products.

“Cases” shows how natural language queries such as “What do politicians say about Iraq?” can find more relevant information than keyword searches, whether or not a speaker is described as a politician. It compares Powerset side by side with “the other guy” — Google — and lets users vote on which works better.

“Powermouse,” a second demonstration service on the test site, lets users see how Powerset technology breaks down a user search into its grammatical parts, then reveals the underlying links to data to see how it arrives at particular results.

One analyst said it was too early to say whether Powerset’s bid to involve consumers in improving how Web search works will succeed, in part because of the laziness of many users who want immediate answers instead of searches that take several steps.

“The real problem is to get people to use the service and interact with the search results, which I don’t think they do,” said Om Malik, a Silicon Valley technology commentator and publisher of the GigaOm network of technology review blogs.

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