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How the Web changes your reading habits

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2005



PALO ALTO, CALIF.

When Ed Chi wants to read, he turns to two of the six computer screens that surround his desk. One is devoted exclusively to e-mail; the other, to the rest of his reading material.

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The senior researcher is testing a theory: What if your "virtual desk" was as just big as your real desk? How would that change your behavior? Dr. Chi, of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California, has found out one thing already. Almost all his reading - text messages, e-mails, journal articles, even books - is done on-screen.

Computers and the Internet are changing the way people read. Thus far, search engines and hyperlinks, those underlined words or phrases that when clicked take you to a new Web page, have turned the online literary voyage into a kind of U-pick island-hop. Far more is in store.

Take "Hamlet." A decade ago, a student of the Shakespeare play would read the play, probably all the way through, and then search out separate commentaries and analyses.

Enter hamletworks.org.

When completed, the site will help visitors comb through several editions of the play, along with 300 years of commentaries by a slew of scholars. Readers can click to commentaries linked to each line of text in the nearly 3,500-line play. The idea is that some day, anyone wanting to study "Hamlet" will find nearly all the known scholarship brought together in a cohesive way that printed books cannot.

Even that effort only scratches the surface of what's possible, some researchers say. Since people are still largely reading the way they always have, they ask, why not use technology to make reading itself more efficient?

The reading experience online "should be better than on paper," Chi says. He's part of a group at PARC developing what it calls ScentHighlights, which uses artificial intelligence to go beyond highlighting your search words in a text. It also highlights whole sections of text it determines you should pay special attention to, as well as other words or phrases that it predicts you'll be interested in. "Techniques like ScentHighlights are offering the kind of reading that's above and beyond what paper can offer," Chi says.

While readers might not feel a need to use ScentHighlights with the next Harry Potter novel, the software could help students, academics, and business people quickly extract specific information from other written material.

ScentHighlights gets its name from a theory that proposes that people forage for information much in the same way that animals forage in the wild. "Certain plants emit a scent in order to attract birds and bees to come to them," Chi says. ScentHighlights uncovers the "scent" that bits of information give off and attract readers to it.

If the reader types in "Wimbledon tennis," for example, ScentHighlights would highlight each word in its own color in the text, as search programs do. But ScentHighlights adds additional keywords in gray that the system has inferred that the reader would be interested in (perhaps "US Open" or "Andy Roddick"). It would also highlight in yellow entire sentences that it deems likely to be especially relevant.

To do this, ScentHighlights combines two approaches, noticing how often words are near each other in text and using a technique called "spreading activation." Chi says: "It basically mimics how humans retrieve information." ScentHighlights actually knows nothing about tennis, he says. "It's a purely statistically based technique."

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