We All Have a Need to Know

 
 
By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-10-15 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A former U.S. President may someday live down the quotation "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." His sympathizers might include those who devise natural language database query systems.

A former U.S. President may someday live down the quotation "It depends on what the meaning of the word is is." His sympathizers might include those who devise natural language database query systems.

To a speaker of Spanish, that presidential faux pas is just an observation that English makes one verb do the job of two. Spanish lets a speaker distinguish between es, the "is" that describes a characteristic (my name is Peter), and esta, the "is" that describes a transient state (the sun is shining). Its easy to imagine a database query that depends on which "is" is meant: "Is there a reservation for Mr. Coffee?" could mean, "Is there anything in the reservations database, past, present or future, involving Mr. Coffee?"—or it could mean "Is Mr. Coffee expected today?"

A system of this kind should tell you what it thinks you were asking and tell you in a way that anticipates follow-up queries. One natural language system that passes both of these tests comes from iPhrase Technologies, whose product handles queries at the Charles Schwab financial services site. I challenged Schwab.com with the spontaneous query (not a vendor-suggested example) "Show me p/e for technology stocks with market cap more than $1 billion" and got back a table that summarized the results by industry segment with one-click drill-down into each companys details. Very nice.

Perversely, just as we develop the tools to grapple with a worldwide knowledge base, proposed legislation would force all IT devices to collaborate in limiting access to that knowledge. As if the Digital Millennium Copyright Act werent bad enough, the ominous Security Systems Standards and Certification Act would impose digital rights management functions on a huge variety of devices and their users—saying, in part, "It is unlawful to ... traffic in any interactive digital device that does not include and utilize certified security technologies."

Well soon be able to ask a machine "What do you know thats worth knowing?" Unfortunately, its only answer may be "Im sorry, but I cant tell you."

 
 
 
 
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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