Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Answers.com Acquires BrainBoost to Provide Better Answers to Natural Questions

Several months back I noted in our weblog a company called Factbites, a search technology company whose search results provided a knowledge outline for a given topic gleaned from content hosted at reference-oriented Web sites. Factbites itself has not progressed very far but Answers.com has answered the call to provide better knowledge outlines for reference content audiences with its announced acquisition of Brainboost, a search engine technology company that focuses on using natural language processing (NLP) to build knowledge outlines in search results. Brainboost technology uses NLP both to parse search queries formed in natural phrases and then looks at the semantics of its target content sources to find answers to those questions that match not just words but phrases that provide answers to the full human context of a question.

The results can be quite powerful. If we were to ask "When was the Declaration of Independence Signed" to Brainboost, Ask Jeeves, Factbites and Google, we'd see that while Google may have come up with some good reference sites the actual answers in the content returned in the search results are far more accurate in Brainboost than any of the other sources. Although Factbites does let us know further down in its outline that most delegates signing the actual declaration did not do so until much later than the traditional 4 July 1776 signing date Brainboost lets you know this up in the top of the search results. So Brainboost not only points us to well-defined answers but also points us immediately to some of the controversies that may surround what seems like an easily answered question.

Reference products are an excellent target for natural language processing, as I mentioned to Reuters News yesterday afternoon. The content targeted by reference services tends to be found in a few relatively focused sources and structured in answer-like phrases that will lend themselves to this technology's strengths. Ask Jeeves has promised this kind of capability for several years but since it needed to tune its capabilities to a wide range of search query types - product lookups, travel directions and such - the technology was never really tuned to the kinds of content that would yield naturally phrased answers to naturally phrased questions.

It will be several months before we see the application of Brainboost technology to Answers.com but when we do see it expect Web users to begin to gain more confidence to formulate searches in natural phrases - and to be doing so via Answers.com. Thinking of how these capabilities could be applied to speech recognition interfaces may bring us far closer to Google's vision of a Star Trek-like computer churning out real answers to human questions far sooner than even Google will be able to deliver. Unless we see an acquisition some time soon...
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