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3/25/2005
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Search For Tomorrow

Google may lead in Web searches, but investment in emerging technologies will open up new ways of searching digital information. Part 3 in the series The Future Of Software

Finding a needle in a haystack is no longer good enough. Now it's a matter of finding a needle among thousands of haystacks. The problem is even influencing operating-system design: Apple Computer plans to include its Spotlight search engine in the next major release of its Mac OS X, and Microsoft had been laboring over a new file system--since delayed--that was supposed to simplify finding documents, E-mails, and contacts on PCs running the upcoming Longhorn version of Windows.

It's hard to get much relevance with the kind of simple keyword searches most users have been conditioned to construct, says Dmitri Roussinov, an assistant professor in Arizona State University's information systems department. "The technology has pretty much reached the limits," he says. As an alternative, Roussinov has developed a type of "question-answering" system that aims to return specific, correct answers to questions, rather than dozens of pages of ranked results. His system, described in a paper published last year, parses the structure of sentences on the Web to deliver answers to queries such as, "Who is the CEO of IBM?" (answer: Sam Palmisano), without relying on a database of linguistic rules. That could make the system easier and cheaper to implement, he says. At the IEEE International Conference on Intelligence and Security Informatics in Atlanta in May, Roussinov plans to present new research that shows a question-answering application that can find "dangerous" Web pages, like those explaining how to build bombs or break into computers.

Funding is flush for technology with intelligence and security applications. Federal spending for research and development will rise 4.8% to $132.2 billion this fiscal year, and 80% of that increase goes to defense research. The new Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency got $300 million for this year and is slated to receive $1 billion next year.

On the startup front, audio search company Nexidia Inc., which rose out of research at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has developed a "phonetic search engine" (see story, "Speeding The Audio Search Process") that can analyze the basic sounds that make up English words to search recordings 50 times faster than their actual playback speed. The technology is being used by the military, which wants to monitor enemy communications, and by businesses to analyze customer-support calls.

Microsoft also believes there's more work to do to make Internet and intranet searches more relevant, and it's using its strength in ease of use and R&D clout to solve the keyword conundrum. PC users still have a hard time interacting with search engines, says Dane Glasgow, a product unit manager at Microsoft's Internet division, MSN. The company's market research shows that search engines don't give satisfactory answers to about half of all queries. That's in part because users often fail to provide enough details. "If I type 'peanut' in a search box and hit enter," Glasgow says, "there's a terrific amount of information that's lacking for us to help answer the question." In response, Microsoft is working on tools to make it easier for users to frame their questions and for computers to return relevant answers. "When we think of some of the problems in the space, there's great work ahead in terms of user interface innovation," he says.

There already are signs of how Microsoft is using its assets to personalize search results. Its MSN Search engine, which went live last month after a three-month test, lets users get direct answers to questions by searching the Web and Microsoft's Encarta online encyclopedia simultaneously. "Search is such a broad category and spans across Microsoft so much," Glasgow says. "We're probably looking at almost everything in the space."

Besides its tendency to lull users into oversimplicity, the other critique of keyword searching is that it's not sensitive to what a PC user is doing at the moment. Stouffer Egan, CEO of Autonomy Inc., says his company's software can make searching part of users' workflow. "The keyword box is not going to go away, but it can be so dramatically improved," he says. Autonomy, whose customers include BP, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, and Siemens, makes software that scans an organization's documents in the background, then suggests search results that may be most relevant to what someone's working on. For example, if a salesperson is using software from Siebel Systems Inc., Autonomy can return contextual information to help them along--say, contact information for a person whose name was just typed. Autonomy's technology underlies the Blinkx search engine, which can crawl the Web for links that relate to a document that's open on a user's desktop. Autonomy also analyzes image and video files, a processing-intensive task, and tags them with metadata that can be searched quickly from users' desktops.

Gerry Louw, CIO of Video Monitoring Services, which records and analyzes news broadcasts to let companies monitor their coverage and spot trends, uses Autonomy's software to search some 75,000 hours of TV and radio newscasts that arrive each month, then filter it for clips relevant to its customers. As a result, the company has cut its processing time by two-thirds and can deliver new information to clients almost immediately after a broadcast. "It's transformed the way we actually do business," Louw says. "It creates an arena where we have business intelligence for unstructured data. Always-on search will become the default."

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