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Thursday, September 21, 2017

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The Quest for Meaning (continued)

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Susan Dumais, senior researcher of adaptive systems and interaction for Microsoft, notes that a Web surfer who types printer into a search engine or help system is probably not seeking information on writing code for printer-driver software - even if the word appears 100 times in such a document, yielding a strong keyword match. The average person is probably looking for information on setting up a printer, trying to figure out why a printer isn't working, or looking for a good price on equipment. The prior knowledge of what most users are searching for can be factored into Bayesian information-retrieval strategies. The ability of Bayes nets to snare relationships among words that elude keyword-matching schemes "points to the rich way that human discourse is generated," Dumais observes, "out of words not said and all the finely shaded ways of saying things."

Many of the older firms specializing in text search and retrieval - such as Verity and Excalibur Technologies - have relied on teams of linguistic experts to create a custom taxonomy of terms for each client, charting the syntactic relationships among key concepts. This can take months. One advantage of the Bayesian approach is that the patterns naturally occurring in the texts "teach" the computer about the relationships between words - whether they're in English or Uzbek.

Lynch has no interest in fathering a multilingual search engine. He sees the search-engine business as locked up by established brands and is confident that the potential applications of Bayes' work to the torrent of digital text flooding our desktops is more far-reaching than aiming to build a better mousetrap.com. Instead, Lynch set about to kill off the search paradigm altogether by using Bayes' method to provide something better.

One of the products Autonomy created after it was spun off from Neurodynamics in 1996 was ActiveKnowledge, the BAE Systems tool that tips you off to relevant resources in the company archive when you begin typing a document. Another software program under the Autonomy direct-sales banner, Portal-in-a-Box, collects links to archived documents and to data on the Internet it thinks you'll be interested in - based on the texts you've clicked to and read in the past - and weaves it all into a custom-tailored page on your company's Web site. Portal-in-a-Box is like having your own personal clipping service that can read your mind increasingly well over time. Just as Bayes nets can get better and better at recognizing the differences between a saxophone solo and a burst of static, a smeared B and a water-stained 8, they can come to know what news topics you care about, what stocks you watch, and which email subject headers you deem sufficiently important to have zapped to your PDA. The more you interact with the items the software puts in front of you, the better it can predict how you'll react to an item, and it can even make an educated guess about what you'll want to do next.

Microsoft greets visitors with a desktop PC that has been christened the Bayesian Receptionist.

With the Dynamic Reasoning Engine at its core, Autonomy's cluster of applications combines Bayesian pattern recognition with neural networks, which use parallel pathways to mimic the action of the human nervous system.The company's products serve two primary markets: corporate knowledge management and new media. The same software that helps create breathe.net's personal portals for European business travelers enables Telia, a Swedish telecommunications firm, to market family-friendly Internet access with sex sites filtered out. The police force of Essex County, north of London, uses an Autonomy-powered database called Leo to turn up correspondences among criminal records, police reports, and emergency call transcripts. "The whole idea of police intelligence is putting together seemingly unimportant bits of information," explains Julian Robinson, the Essex Police Authority's system-development officer. "Autonomy products are the cornerstone around which we've built exactly what our officers want - a system that provides information with as little effort as possible."

Autonomy's low-maintenance software also won the company the BAE Systems contract over Excalibur Technology's RetrievalWare after a three-month trial of both products. "The amount of administration required for Excalibur was horrendous," says Kevin Phillips, head of information systems at BAE Systems' Virtual University. "Autonomy just burbles along."


The Net is burying us in things others think we might want to see or buy. As an increasing amount of stuff competes for our attention and prime placement on our ever more pocketable interfaces, software agents that just burble along - gradually training themselves to know what we really care about without resorting to online questionnaires or battalions of text taggers - may be our only hope for digging ourselves out. When there are hundreds of digital TV channels, and only six buttons on our remotes, how will we navigate the stacks and directories to find what we want to watch? For European viewers, an Autonomy product launching later this year will bring programs a viewer is likely to be interested in to the top of the heap.

In a report released by Jupiter Communications last November, 46 percent of high-traffic ecommerce sites studied - up from 38 percent in 1998 - were unable to respond to an email request for support within five days. The solution, Jupiter suggests, is an automated email-response system. Tasks like intelligent email routing and customer management are natural niches for software that acts like it knows how to read. Bayesian reasoning engines implanted in a dozen programs might look at a single piece of email sent to Anywhere.com as it's filtered through security, routed to the appropriate recipients, posted to in-house bulletin boards, and then responded to without giving away trade secrets.

In May last year, Autonomy made its reasoning engine available to other companies that wanted to build their own software around it on an OEM basis. Autonomy licenses its code to these partners at various rates and earns royalties of 10 to 50 percent on products that use Autonomy software. Such agreements with equipment manufacturers are Autonomy's fastest-growing revenue segment, and a company source speculates that revenues from OEM deals will exceed the income from direct sales by 2001.

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