Ask.com Tries Different Question-Answering

July 27, 2010
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One of the common (and mistaken) assumptions about IBM’s Jeopardy-playing computer, Watson, is that it has a database of answers to Jeopardy clues, and that it’s just a matter of finding the right one. For Jeopardy, which has a staff of writers coming up with puzzlers, such a database would be impossible. Consider this clue from earlier this month: Under the category …quot;Jonah’s Druthers,…quot; it reads:

One of the common (and mistaken) assumptions about IBM’s Jeopardy-playing computer, Watson, is that it has a database of answers to Jeopardy clues, and that it’s just a matter of finding the right one. For Jeopardy, which has a staff of writers coming up with puzzlers, such a database would be impossible. Consider this clue from earlier this month: Under the category …quot;Jonah’s Druthers,…quot; it reads:

…quot;Abord ship in a storm, the men …quot;cast…quot; these items of chance; Jonah’s came up, but he’d rather it didn’t. (I think I would have used …quot;hadn’t…quot; for that last verb.) The answer, which isn’t that hard for lots of humans, is …quot;lots….quot; But can you imagine a database waiting with an answer for that clue? No, Watson has to do loads of hunting, syntactical analysis and statistical work in three to five seconds to come up with answers.

But according to the NY Times, Ask.com is returning to its question-answering AskJeeves roots with a new Q/A service. This one, unlike Watson, will index some 500 million questions and answers. Most of these, I’m assuming, will be simple fact answers to simply-phrased questions, what Watson’s builders call …quot;factoids….quot; How far is it from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh? How much does a Buick LeSabre cost? Most search engines, including Google, are already providing answers to these types of questions in the search results. You can often see them without clicking.

The challenge will be to keep the answers fresh. The price changes on that Buick. Nicolas Sarkozy won’t be the president of France forever. A Q/A database, to stay relevant, has to be very lively, always checking and refreshing itself.

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We’re driving back from a wonderful wedding in the suburbs of Detroit. The honeymooners are now in Paris, and we’re in Clearfield, Pa., the home of Dave Morgan, founder of Tacoda and Simulmedia, and the first character I introduced in The Numerati. Looking around here for dinner last night, I can understand why he decamped to Manhattan. Though the scenery in this part of western Pa, especially as dusk on a summer evening, is gorgeous.