Finding a better answer

Don’t you ever wish you could just open your favorite browser, type a question (in natural language, not computer speak) in the input box, then wait a millisecond for the right answer? Or, better yet, just turn on the computer and verbally ask a question and wait for a response (think the Starship Enterprise here)? Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn dealt with the “information search & retrieval” problem in the movie “The Desk Set” from 1957 in which a giant computer was brought in to supplement a staff of librarians, with the thought that the computer would aid in efficiency. The computer took your question, submitted on a sheet of paper, did some crunching in the background, then spit out the answer - correctly (most of the time). Maybe even better than that would be something like a virtual librarian (think the one in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash), an avatar who takes your question then pilfers through, presumably, yottabytes of data in milliseconds and gives an answer. Of course, the avatar (nothing more than code brought to life) is incapable of thinking, which is where the real problem lies. We haven’t realized Stephenson’s or Gene Roddenberry’s vision yet, but plenty of folks are working on it. To get a glimpse of the current status on this front as well as where we might be headed, check out “The Ultimate Answer Machine” in the Aug. 6th issue of InformationWeek or read it online here (same article, different title).

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