Xerox PARC spins off start-up on natural language search [The New York Times]

Powerset
On Friday, Xerox PARC (or Palo Alto Research Centre) is announcing that it will be “licensing a broad portfolio of patents and technology to a well-financed start-up with an ambitious and potentially lucrative goal: to build a search engine that could some day rival Google,” writes Miguel Helft in the New York Times.

The start-up, Powerset, is licensing PARC’s “natural language” technology — the art of making computers understand and process languages like English or French. Powerset hopes the technology will be the basis of a new search engine that allows users to type queries in plain English, rather than using keywords.

In the fall, Powerset raised $12.5 million in its first round of financing from venture-capital firms and individual investors. The challenges facing it are immense, and the odds of success are long. But the PARC technology, which is a result of 30 years of research, is certain to lend it an aura of credibility.

PARC’s natural-language technology is among the “most comprehensive in existence,” said Fernando Pereira, an expert in natural language and the chairman of the department of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. But by itself, it will not guarantee Powerset’s success, Mr. Pereira said. […]

Over the past year, PARC researchers have worked with Powerset engineers to build a prototype, but the company does not expect to release its search engine to the public until the end of this year.

Meanwhile, other start-ups and several of the search giants are also working to develop natural-language search technology. The appeal is clear. A successful natural-language search engine could, in theory, answer real questions — for example, what companies did I.B.M. acquire in the last five years? — that existing search engines are not equipped to handle. And it could turn the process of finding information on the Web into a conversation between the search engine and the user. […]

Researchers have predicted breakthrough applications for natural languages for years, but the technology has proved usable in only limited contexts, turning many experts into skeptics about its potential, at least in the short term. […]

In a November interview, Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president for search and user experience, said: “Natural language is really hard. I don’t think it will happen in the next five years.”

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  1. […] [New York Times] La Xerox PARC venerdì annuncerà l’autorizzazione di un vasto portafoglio di brevetti e di tecnologie che si prefiggano l’obiettivo di realizzare un motore di ricerca capace di competere con Google. La start-up Powerset, sta brevettando il “linguaggio naturale di Parc” che qualora applicato ad un nuovo motore di ricerca dovrebbe consentire all’utente di formulare domande nel linguaggio correntemente utilizzato. […]