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Powerset, natural language as the UI, so where’s the search innovation?

Posted by direwolff on October 6, 2006

Yesterday was my first opportunity to read what Barney Pell had to say about his new start-up, Powerset, in a blog post dated 10/4/06. It seems from his post that there has been much discussion about what he’s up to, and while I caught one of the articles that appeared on CNET (by Stefanie Olsen) about the company, I had not been aware that there were some debates brewing around his proposition. In his post, he provides links to these, which I have to confess, I have yet to follow, but I did read Esther’s and Matt Hursts’ articles and both were interesting. I know Barney is a smart guy, at least from all of my interactions with him during his days as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Mayfield, but I feel that his positioning of a natural language interface as the key component to the shortcomings of search engines somewhat misses the deeper issues.

Now, let me qualify my comments by saying that I’m not even 1/10th as qualified in this space as Barney is, and I certainly didn’t architect anything for NASA in my life, (for which I’m sure they’re thankful). My technical abilities are somewhat limited in practice, but in understanding I know enough to be dangerous. For the past 6 years, my involvement with a company named Readware has exposed me to many technologies in this space and lead me to a greater understanding for issues around search precision and accuracy (in terms of where, when, and for what applications it’s important). While I understand the difference between this and the business of search as we know it today (both the generic/public search engines and the enterprise ones), I also understand that the user-interface (UI) is not the key issue in an area where most of the innovation today has focused on sorting algorithms (ie. Pagerank) not in search process innovations. Given that Readware has some interesting innovations in search, I had mentioned this to Barney before he embarked on Powerset, but I don’t believe he ever explored it, sadly. Oh well. He may yet, since applying his front-end to Readware would really be the jewel that he doesn’t know he’s seeking.

What I don’t hear from Powerset, is any discussion about what, if anything new, is actually being indexed by their method. In other words, in past natural language systems, the innovation was the ability to convert the user’s English language request into a search engine friendly request, otherwise said, converting English into Barney’s coined term, “Keywordese”. Where people don’t express themselves very well in Keywordese , it is the basis for most of today’s search engines. The interpreter however could elaborate a keyword query that took into account a more complete representation of the user’s English request. Is Powerset bringing more of that to the fore again? What does not appear to be happening in the Powerset model, is an appreciation for meaning and context at a deeper level, not merely at query composition time. The ability to use a natural language interface doesn’t change the fact that in keyword systems there’s no ontological framework from which to draw inferences and associate meanings. Further, it’s about being able to represent this to machines, and as one of my associates put it, “it’s about transforming the inputs from bytes, characters, and keywords into abstractions of objects and entities and their relations in the specified context”.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing Powerset in action, as I’m a believer that you have to get into the game and play in order to learn, make progress, and be in a position to identify the true market for your offering. While I agree with Danny Sullivan’s comments under the latest VentureBeat post about Powerset, and also believe that Powerset may have missed the mark they are espousing, there may still be some solid applications of their technology which will take on a life of their own. Knowing that Barney is a genuine and solid entrepreneur, I also know that he will find these opportunities and know how to make the most of them.

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