Powerset unveils its potential

Powerset's technology breaks down the meaning of words and sentences into related concepts, freeing users from always needing to type the exact words they want to find.

The closely watched Silicon Valley start-up is offering a way of searching millions of entries in Wikipedia's online encyclopedia, helping users find detailed answers to questions rather than isolated links that require further research.

San Francisco-based Powerset is looking to leapfrog the current generation of services that rely on keyword searches such as Google Inc, Yahoo Inc, Microsoft Corp and IAC InterActiveCorp's Ask.com.

"The Wikipedia is becoming a microcosm of the most useful parts of the Web," said Greg Sterling, an Internet analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence. "This offers a powerful way to find what you are looking for against this subset of the Web."

While still a far cry from letting users search the World Wide Web, Powerset is using Wikipedia as a trial showcase for how its technology can be used to search a vast number of other websites using natural language phrases or questions.

Over time, it aims to partner with other high-quality data sites where information can be organized in a question and answer form that lends itself to Powerset search techniques. Examples might include financial or patent filings, the CIA Factbook or Wikipedia-inspired clones, company officials said.

Powerset, which can be found at www.powerset.com/, looks beyond words to try to understand conceptual relationships that get closer to what a user may be searching for. It analyzes each sentence and whole documents to do so.

Powerset offers richly annotated ways for searching inside Wikipedia entries to find related concepts. Called "Factz", these related ideas generate outlines, summaries and automated answers to users' questions.

"Our system is a little more forgiving," Scott Prevost, general manager of Powerset, said in an interview on Sunday. "It is not looking for hard-word matches. We are not searching for exact words, but concepts," he said.

The 2-1/2-year-old start-up licensed natural language processing technology and related machine processing methods developed over three decades at the Xerox PARC research centre in Silicon Valley to create new consumer Web search services.

With tacit approval of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, the organization behind the Wikipedia, Powerset officials said they are hosting a copy of Wikipedia's 2.5 million English-language entries on its own computers. This lets Powerset make links across the breadth of Wikipedia data.

"What Powerset is doing is offering readers a natural-language search interface, and we think that is an interesting experiment," Mike Godwin, Wikimedia Foundation's general counsel, said in response to an emailed question about how the two organizations would work together.

In addition to Wikipedia, Powerset's new service also searches a related database called Freebase created by MetaWeb, another Web search start-up.

After decades of research and debate, natural language processing is finally poised to go mainstream, predicted Barney Pell, co-founder and chief technology officer.

"2008 is the year that semantic and linguistic technologies cross over into widespread consumer use," he said.