Forget Jeeves, ask Powerset

Remember Ask Jeeves? The search engine branded itself as the web’s trusty maître d'. Type in your query – feel free to phrase it as a question – and Jeeves suggested where you could find an answer. But Jeeves turned off many users by directing them toward rather irrelevant websites. Since then, most search engines – including the Jeeves' replacement, – ignore all of those who, what, when, where, and whys. They just pluck out keywords.

Along comes Powerset. This startup website actually reads what you wrote. The search engine encourages you to write the way you speak, and then uses your phrasing to search entries in Wikipedia.

Type in “Who started Google?” and Powerset’s first response is portraits of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google’s co-founders. The labeled pictures link to their Wikipedia entries. If that wasn’t quite what you wanted, Powerset offers other links, just like any other search engine.

Try “When did Napoleon invade Russia?” and the search engine highlights “June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia.” A search for the same phrase in Google comes up with several sites that have the correct answer, but you need to click through to find it.

Google has incorporated a few instant replies – answers that don’t require you to link to another page. The search engine field can convert measurements, calculate exchange rates, and answer “What is the population of Chile?

But if you rephrase the question and ask Google “How many people are in Chile?” the search engine doesn’t answer “16,284,741,” as it did before. Powerset, on the other hand, answers both versions with the correct number.

The site is not perfect. For one, it only searches Wikipedia entries, so its pool of knowledge is incomplete and possibly inaccurate. The startup hopes to refine the algorithm and expand its sources, maybe one day allowing Powerset to search the entire web.

For now, though, Powerset is an early player in what’s called “semantic search” – that’s an ugly, technical term for teaching computers to understand natural language. Many futurists think that the “semantic Web” will be the next wave in Internet sites – a so-called Web 3.0. Expect a lot more of these natural-language options to come.

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