Saturday, September 20, 2008

Computers begin to 'understand' the meanings of words

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 18/09/2008

The technology now exists to teach computers the meanings of words so that they can "understand" the English language in much the same way as a human.

Cognition Technologies has released a "semantic map" that can give machines a vocabulary that is 10 times larger than that of a typical American college graduate.

The firm has begun licensing the map to software creators interested in developing programs that "understand" words based on their tenses and context in a sentence - in a similar way to the human brain.

"We have taught the computer virtually all the meanings of words and phrases in the English language," Cognition chief executive Scott Jarus told AFP. "This is clearly a building block for Web 3.0, or what is known as the Semantic Web. It has taken 30 years; it is a labour of love," Jarus said.

When applied to Internet searches, semantic technology delivers results directed at what users actually seem to be looking for instead of simply matching words used to online content. For example, a semantic online search for "melancholy songs with birds" would know to link sadness in lyrics with various species of birds.

Cognition's semantic map is already used in a LexisNexis Concordance "e-discovery" software to sift through documents amassed during evidence phases of trials.

"We help them find the needle in a haystack," Jarus said.

Cognition's Caselaw program uses the technology to look through more than a half-century of US federal court decisions for legal precedents, according to the company. The semantic map is also used in a widely-used medical database.

Cognition has a handful of rivals, with each firm taking its own approach to semantic technology. In July US software giant Microsoft bought San Francisco-based Powerset, a three-year-old start-up which specialises in interpreting the intent of people's Internet searches instead of matching specific words they use. Microsoft said it planned to use Powerset technology to enhance its free Live Search service.