Thoughts on Bing and Search Engines of the Future, From UW Computer Scientist Dan Weld

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adding increased natural language understanding, machine learning, and artificial intelligence into the interface.

So what’s it going to look like? Today, you issue a query and you get an ordered list of pages that you might want to read, because they might answer your question. I think what we’ll see more of in the future is the ability to ask a question and have the search engine actually answer your question. The simplest way to describe this only works for old geezers like me, and that is the example of the ship computer on the original Star Trek series, where you could ask it a question and it would tell you the answer. I think eventually we’ll see technology like that, but it’s going to take the engineers at Microsoft, Google, and lots of universities to get there.

Another way I see search going, and this may be closer than the Star Trek computer, is what I would call entity-oriented search. Usually when somebody issues a search query, they have some object in mind, and if the system can interpret what that object is, it could go further in answering your question. Search engines do that most effectively today when it comes to shopping. When you search for a product, you want to know its features and the best or cheapest place to buy it. But on factual queries, it could be similar. So if someone enters “Seattle,” maybe they’re interested in historical information about Seattle, or maybe they want hotels and restaurants, and having the information displayed to the user in terms of those aspects is going to be much more useful than giving a list of pages.

One final direction is increased personalization. You don’t really see that in the Bing interface right now, but I know one of the major changes they’ve done is to make it capable to add increased personalization. Google and the others are aiming at personalization too. A large percentage of queries that any one person does are re-queries, meaning they’re either the same search terms they’ve used in the past, or different search terms, but trying to get the same piece of information. So if the engine keeps track of what I’ve searched before, it can do better. And the challenge is how to do that quickly.

X: So is Bing getting so much attention because it’s Microsoft, or because it’s really revolutionary?

DW: There’s a third option, of course, and it’s that they’re spending something like $80 million to promote the thing. I think it is better in a lot of ways, but I wouldn’t call it revolutionary. Soon I hope I can tell you about some of the research we’re doing which I think will eventually revolutionize search. Our “Intelligence in Wikipedia” project has developed new methods which will analyze the Web to build a huge knowledge database. Initially, the interface will look like a relational database [a database that draws connections between related groups of data], but before long we will provide a complete question answering system.

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Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at Follow @

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