Search for meaningful results

WE'RE rarely satisfied, us humans. For years, search engines have helped us navigate the ever-expanding waters of the internet.

WE'RE rarely satisfied, us humans. For years, search engines have helped us navigate the ever-expanding waters of the internet.

But their penchant for making us search through pages of irrelevant results for the correct information was never going to suffice for long. We want extremely relevant results.

Say hello, then, to semantic search. Semantic, in this case, means meaningful.

The exact definition of semantic search differs, but most people agree it could be some form of intelligent search that understands simple ‘who, where, what, when and how’ questions – and that it should be able to provide clear, simple answers.

For example, if you typed ‘How old is Harrison Ford?’ or even ‘Who is Bill Clinton married to?’ you should get the answers ‘66-years-old’ or ‘Hillary Rodham Clinton’.

Google has started introducing some semantic technology into their search engine.

Yahoo has also been working on semantic technology with a project called Search Monkey, which makes it easier for search engines to interpret the context of a page and return more relevant results.

And just this week, Microsoft unveiled its latest engine, called Bing, which uses cutting-edge technology to deliver even more relevant results. Interestingly they describe this as a discovery engine not a search engine.

I wonder, though, is even semantic searching going to be enough for us? After all, semantic searches will still only provide information that already exists on the net. What if we want answers to questions where the precise information doesn’t yet exist?

To do this, the search engine would need to understand the question, it would need to understand which data could be used to answer it, and it would need to be able to calculate an appropriate answer.

It’s complicated stuff, so you’d be forgiven if you thought it beyond the realms of possibility. Except it isn’t.

In May, British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram released Wolfram Alpha, which he describes as a “computational knowledge engine” and has been hailed as a significant rival to Google. Not only can you ask it for known facts, such as the height of a mountain, but it can also generate new information such as comparing birth rates in one country with those in another.

There’s certainly a desire to find meaning in searching results. Whether projects such as Microsoft Bing or Wolfram Alpha can truly deliver remains to be seen. If they do, it could really change the game.

David Coxon is ICT manager, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

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