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an industry, he's worth $12 billion, and he hobnobs at the World
Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Search
technology, however, hasn't kept pace with his personal rise.
"[T]here are important areas in which I wish we had made more
progress," Brin wrote in Google's 2008 annual report. "Perfect
search requires human-level artificial intelligence, which many
of us believe is still quite distant. However, I think it will soon be
possible to have a search engine that 'understands' more of the
queries and documents than we do today. Others claim to have
accomplished this, and Google's systems have more smarts behind
the curtains than may be apparent from the outside, but the field
as a whole is still shy of where I would have expected it to be."
Among all the leaders in Web search over the years---from
Excite (went bankrupt) to Alta Vista (absorbed by Yahoo in 2003)
to today's top five players (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask, and
AOL)---the core approach has remained the same. They create
massive indexes of the Web---that is, their software continually
"crawls" the Web, collecting phrases, keywords, titles, and links on
billions of pages in order to find the best matches to search queries.
Google triumphed because its method of ranking pages, based
partly on analyzing the linking structure between them, produced
superior results. But while the Web has expanded 10,000-fold over
the past decade, search engines haven't made comparable prog-
ress in their ability to find specific answers and then put them
together intelligently. The Semantic Web---the long-envisioned
system in which information is tagged to allow such processing---
is still a long way o .
Last year Yahoo launched something called SearchMonkey,
which allows Web-page publishers to improve search returns
by adding tags telling the search engine's software, "This is
an address," "This is a phone number," and so on. (So now, if
you search on Yahoo for a restaurant, you may receive, beyond
a link to the restaurant's page, bullets listing the restaurant's
address, its phone number, and a compilation of reviews.) "What
SearchMonkey is doing is taking the promise of the Semantic
Web and putting it out in the open so publishers can participate,"
says Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo Labs. Google recently
began doing something similar, called "rich snippets."
But such ideas have been slow to spread across the Web, even
though the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international
standard-setting body led by Berners-Lee, has set out specifica-
tions to help implement them more broadly. And even if the W3C
standards were broadly applied, they do not o er much guidance
on computation, says Ivan Herman, who heads the W3C's seman-
tic e orts from Amsterdam: "How this data is combined with
numerical calculation and math processes is not well defined, and
that is certainly an area in which we have to work."
So while today's search engines are increasingly broad and
useful---expanding into new categories (maps, photographs, videos,
news), learning to answer simple questions ("What is the popula-
tion of New York?"), and even doing basic conversions ("What is 10
pounds in kilograms?")---they aren't particularly deep or insightful.
"While Google is great," says Daniel Weld, a computer scientist at
the University of Washington and a Semantic Web researcher,
"personally I would rather have the ship's computer on the Star-
ship Enterprise, where you ask high-level questions and it gives the
answer, and explains the answer, and then you can say, 'Why did
you think that was true?' and it takes you back to the source."
As Stephen Wolfram sees it, he's providing the infrastructure for
answering questions in truly intelligent ways---albeit on subjects
biased initially toward geeky domains. "We don't have the problem
of dealing with the vicissitudes of the stu that's just sort of out there
on the Web," he says. "We've bitten the bullet and said, 'Let's curate
all this data ourselves!' It would be great if the Semantic Web had
happened and we could just go and pick up data and it would all fit
beautifully together. It hasn't happened."
At 3 . . on April 28, launch was still two weeks out as the 49-year-
old Wolfram---graying, balding, and full of nervous energy---took his
place at a Harvard Law School lectern, clad as usual in an oxford
shirt, khakis, and Nike sneakers, to deliver the first public (and
webcast) demonstration of Wolfram Alpha. Speaking in his soft
English accent, he ran through some of the engine's bag of tricks,
such as entering strings of Gs, Cs, As, and Ts to obtain detailed
data about the genes in which a DNA sequence appeared.
Over the previous two decades, Wolfram had come to be
known for both his brilliance and his self-aggrandizement. A
London-born prodigy, he skipped an undergraduate degree to
receive his PhD in physics from Caltech when he was 20, and won
a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant two years later. He held a
series of prestigious posts at Caltech, the Institute for Advanced
Study at Princeton, and the University of Illinois. But in the mid-
1980s he left academia to found Wolfram Research, and in 1988
the company issued the first version of Mathematica. The soft-
ware contains vast libraries of mathematical functions, tools
for visualizing data in two and three dimensions, and deep data-
"We've bitten the bullet and
said, 'Let's curate all this data
ourselves!' " Wolfram says. "It
would be great if the Semantic
Web had happened and we
could just go and pick up data
and it would all fit beautifully
together. It hasn't happened."
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