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Last Updated: Monday, 4 October, 2004, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
The future of facts
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Screengrab of webpage showing wrong dates for death of George Boole, BBC
Not all webpages are proofread
The net is like a good friend, always ready to listen when we turn to it for help and advice.

Search engines make it easy to ask any and every kind of question, from ones that are refreshing in their innocence to those that would make even a prison doctor blush.

But the net, like any friend, is not infallible and can let its prejudices skew the information it passes on.

Search engines do little in the way of helping you judge whether a page you visit has an agenda or who is behind the information.

Google particularly makes no judgement about the pages that its technology, based around keywords and page ranking, tells it are important for a particular topic.

Objective source

"Keyword and page rank just look at the fact that there's that word out there and that it exists on a web page and people link to it," says Justin Gardner, spokesman for new search engine Kozoru.

"This can be dubious at times. It can give you back information that's old or information that's not correct. It does not understand timeliness or actual fact."

This realisation could explain why some search engines and services are setting themselves up as unbiased sources of bald facts, rather than let people flounder online.

Mr Gardner says Kozoru is going back to basics to build its search engine, which is due in mid-2005.

Getting an answer
Giraffe and offspring, PA
Q: Do giraffes make a distinctive sound?
A: Although giraffes are generally quiet animals, they can make a bleating sound, similar to that of a young calf or sheep.
Answer by 82ask
"We want to build a system that understands language and connections between words," he says.

The baseline of authority this will be based on is a dictionary.

"It is the most objective source we have and it's where we can get all the rules that govern language," says Mr Gardner.

On top of this will be a database of facts, as well as detailed information about products and companies. Finally, comes the web.

"Which we consider to be opinion," he says.

Users will be able to type whole questions into Kozoru instead of a couple of keywords.

"When you go to a search engine you have a question in your mind that you want to ask but you have to break that down in to keywords," says Mr Gardner.

One search engine that is always been happy to take questions is Ask Jeeves, which has also re-vamped itself to respond instantly with answers to queries.

Fact finders

The director of product at Ask Jeeves UK, Tony Macklin, says it served up pre-prepared answers for increasing numbers of questions that people ask.

If you ask a question about the time in Tokyo you will get back the actual time in the Japanese capital instead of just a link to worldtimeserver.com.

Mr Macklin says Ask Jeeves keeps an eye on what people are looking for to spot which facts are being sought at any particular time.

You can also get fast facts via your mobile phone thanks to 82ask.

It has been set up by Sarah McVittie and Thomas Roberts, who used to work in corporate finance and often had to answer difficult queries quickly for their demanding bosses.

"We've spent the last two years identifying the most efficient sources and places to find information," says Ms McVittie.

Getting an answer
Scene from BBC TV version of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, BBC
Q: What is the meaning of life?
A: The Meaning of Life is the title of a 1983 Monty Python film. Alternatively, according to Douglas Adams in the HH's Guide to the Galaxy, it is 42.
Answer by 82ask
And that doesn't mean every one of the researchers sits at home typing queries into a browser.

"There are some questions that are just general knowledge and things anyone with the right research and knowledge can answer," she says.

"But there are a lot of questions you cannot find the answer to on the web."

The questions the service has been asked include people trying to find a shop that has iPods in stock, restaurant recommendations, as well as big issues such as: "What is the meaning of life?"

Common queries are answered using a database that recognises text input and feeds back an answer. Others are passed to actual people.

Customers do not mind having to fit their question into the 160 or so characters of a text message, says Ms McVittie.

"When you have to ask the question in 160 characters it makes you focus on what you need to know," she says.

The oddest question 82ask has been asked was from someone who had to locate a lot of flies very quickly.

The query was from an advertising executive who had been let down by his usual fly supplier and needed some for a photo shoot.

Ms McVittie says 82ask found just what he wanted.

"We haven't been beaten yet," she says.




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