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The Future of Google Search and Natural Language Queries

Zonk posted more than 6 years ago | from the teach-us-to-search dept.

Google 148

eldavojohn writes "You might know the name Peter Norvig from the classic big green book, 'AI: A Modern Approach.' He's been working for Google since 2001 as Director of Search Quality. An interview with Norvig at MIT's Technology Review has a few interesting insights into the 'search mindset' at the company. It's kind of surprising that he claims they have no intent to allow natural questions. Instead he posits, 'We think what's important about natural language is the mapping of words onto the concepts that users are looking for. But we don't think it's a big advance to be able to type something as a question as opposed to keywords ... understanding how words go together is important ... That's a natural-language aspect that we're focusing on. Most of what we do is at the word and phrase level; we're not concentrating on the sentence.'"

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This is awesome. (2, Funny)

Arancaytar (966377) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739660)

"I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't search that."

What's really the story (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21740054)

Is that natural language stuff is hard. And even more so, AI, which was so promising to so many of us in the 80s turned out to be so hard that it is basically impossible. I think it caused a real shift in the natural language research, sending us to use statistics and probability, since basically AI never got going,

Re:What's really the story (3, Insightful)

theStorminMormon (883615) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740722)

I think that actually misses the point. If you've worked as an engineer or a consultant - or even if you've just helped people search for stuff on Google - you probably have realized that THEY DON'T KNOW WHAT TO ASK FOR. A really good consultant/engineer is someone who has the ability to figure out what a person wants based on what they say.

Even if you mastered natural language (and I'm not saying that's a surmountable task) I think people would be shocked to see that Google searches would still be frustrating.

I'm not just saying "blame the user", I'm saying that language itself is not even the last obstacle to overcome. You're going to need to figure out an program that not only understands natural language, but also context, culture, etc.

Getting an AI of near-human intelligence is not enough, because to be really good at getting people the answers to questions they can't ask you have to be of above-average capability.

Re:What's really the story (4, Interesting)

Alt_Cognito (462081) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741026)

Bah, the engine just has to ask refinement questions. Of course, this could be interesting:

User: Who is the winningest coach in football?
Search Engine: Did you mean, What coach has the most wins in football?
User: Yes
Search Engine: Did you mean American football?
User: Yes
Search Engine: NFL NCAA CFL...?
User: Umn, all of the above
Search Engine: Are you sure?
User: What?
Search Engine: Are you sure you want to compare all years, after all, NFL rules significantly changed in 2001, and leagues are not comparable...
User: Yes.. Yes, please compare them all....
Search Engine: You know winningest isn't a word right? .... And so on and so forth...

Re:What's really the story (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21741174)

Search Engine: Would you prefer woUser: NOW!!!
Search Engine: *sigh* As you wish...

Dude, you are so ignorant (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21741112)

What you are saying has nothing to do with the parents point. Do you even know the first thing about natural language research and/or AI research ? He's saying IT HASNT DONE SHIT since eliza was written. All of old fogey AI academics worshipped at the altar of Godel-Escher-Bach, only to find out that we were scratching granite wth our fingernails.

Re:Dude, you are so ignorant (1)

Intron (870560) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742218)

Actually, SHRDLU [] in 1970 was the peak. Eliza had no internal world model. SHRDLU could answer questions that started "Why did you..". It's pretty much gone downhill since then.

Understatement of the year (1)

Chapter80 (926879) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742356)

Go back to Excite and the search engines before: you have a box, and you get a list of 10 results, with a little bit of information accompanying each result. We've just stuck with that.
TR: What has changed?
PN: The scale. There's probably a thousand times more information.
1000x? That's got to be the understatement of the year! If not the understatement of the second.

natural language is an oxymoron (3, Insightful)

yagu (721525) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739668)

I tend to agree with Norvig's focus on keywords and less emphasis on natural language. Trying to even define a natural language on top of a query engine introduces a layer of complexity probably unnecessary. Natural Language even introduces a level of noise to interfere with accurately (as possible) defining what the user is asking for.

Google has done a good job, and they get better each iteration figuring out what the user is looking for. I find their suggestion [] an effective way to not only constrain a query, it actually provides a way to spell check in a pre-emptive way. If you've not used this, install the Firefox Google toolbar, or use the experimental Google "Suggest" [] . Often Google will provide suggestions in the drop down menu that refine your search in ways you hadn't considered that drive to a more direct and accurate representation of your intended query. Of course if their suggestions don't satisfy, you get to continue typing your keywords to your heart's desire.

(I have to offer an example of suggestion's effectiveness. I often Google to get to the Chicago Tribune (I don't visit there often enough to have created a bookmark, plus it's easy to do this in anyone's browser). Simply typing the first four letters, "chic", I see the first suggestion is "Chicago Tribune". A simple TAB and RETURN, I'm on the Google page with the first link or so my link to the Tribune (with the added bonus of Google's breakout of sublinks).) Your mileage may vary (Google's ranking system may vary the order and options that appear in the drop-down over time), but I find it an amazingly effective research tool (suggestion, not the Trib).

Natural language is mostly trying to guess intent with structure and key words (as opposed to keywords), but at the end of the day, if you filter out the natural language, and focus on keywords you're going to end up in close to the same place.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

krog (25663) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739754)

No, I'd say the phrase "natural language" is just about perfect at describing what natural language is.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

Arancaytar (966377) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739830)

Primitive question words like "what is" or "where is" or "how many" would still be nice to have, though - I agree however that trying to understand a full question is needless overkill.

"What is" is already mapped to "define:" as far as I know. "Who is" works in a similar way.

"Why did World War I start" or "what does a duck eat" are questions that require too much understanding and explanation of the concepts. But simple definitions, locations or numbers shouldn't be that difficult to spew out. "how many" could pretty much just map to the calculator, with more constants defined.

If the search engine merely checks for the presence of such a question word, it can already refine the results. Occasionally, the question is a simple one, but one not usually asked about the term you are looking for. In that case, the refining would speed up the answer by saving you the bother of looking through irrelevant results.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (4, Informative)

pluther (647209) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740156)

"Why did World War I start" or "what does a duck eat" are questions that require too much understanding and explanation of the concepts.

Not at all. I do that kind of question in Google all the time.

Googling for "Why did World War I start" brings up, as the first result, an article titled "The Causes of World War I".

Followed by a few million more hits if that one isn't good enough.

And the question "What does a duck eat" gets many hits as well. The first one has, in the summary:

Ducks in the wild eat a variety of plants, insects, and native foods that will differ from...

I know it's just picking out keywords from the query and matching them to the sites, not trying to parse the natural language, but it works pretty damn well.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (3, Funny)

0100010001010011 (652467) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740354)

Fine, those were easy. Lets see google understand this one: Women.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

Sciros (986030) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741168)

It does do some low-level parsing. Google "how tall is Mt. Hood" for example.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

MrMr (219533) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741358)

This came up as #1

How tall is Mt. Hood? According the U.S. Geological Survey, Mt. Hood is 3426 Meters (11239 Feet) tall. To learn more about Mt. Hood geology visit ...

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

Sciros (986030) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741482)

Eh? That comes up as #2. This is what comes up as #1:

Mount Hood -- Elevation: 11,249 feet (3,429 meters)

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21742602)

Try this: how many rivers are in minnesota? []

I think there is a big opportunity for the first company that solves this.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

megaditto (982598) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740802)

Searching for how many female redneck scanks with a doctorate degree in nanobiology would date me made me really sad.

Those women don't know what they are missing.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

ByOhTek (1181381) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739834)

Not to mention, by understanding the root conecpts of word structures, without going whole-sentance, eventually you can get good results from sentances, or questions as an emergent behavior.

I tried several questions in google, and it performed really well, only having trouble with:
    Why does ask suck and google not?

That came back with a bunch of results saying google sucked. My other questions seemed to produce very useful results. I think that was the point the dev wanted people to understand - if you do your code write, by understanding the simpler parts, sentance processing won't be necessary.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

Intron (870560) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742526)

I think your post explains the difficulties of natural language processing very well.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (4, Interesting)

porcupine8 (816071) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739858)

I would find the drop-down suggestions a lot more useful if I could read more than the first two words. As I type in, for example "Chicago dog boarding" all I see is a list of "Chicago do... " I'm sure there must be a way to make the search space take up more of the toolbar (I don't really need that much room in the URL space, since most URLs that long are nonsense), but I don't know how and I don't really want my browser window to be the width of my screen.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

yagu (721525) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739984)

If you're using the Google Suggest page, I think the width is sufficient if you have the browser at any reasonable width, so I'm assuming you're talking about the drop down from the toolbar, in which case you're in luck. Type something to invoke the drop down, or click the arrow to look at history. In the lower right, you should see a handle, expand to your heart's content. It's nicely implemented, even pushes the box to the left if you're browser's too close to the right side of your screen. Enjoy.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

porcupine8 (816071) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740560)

Hm, no handle for me. I'm in Firefox 2.0 on OS 10.3.9. Maybe this only works in windows FF.

It would really help if the right half of the drop-down weren't taken up by the word "Sugges..." on the first line, which for some reason also creates a big blank space on all the lines below it. They couldn't just put that as the first line, if they really need to point out that they're suggesting things to me?

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (2, Informative)

encoderer (1060616) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741180)

I think you two are confusing each other..

The parent to my post is talking about the Google Search Box built-into firefox. The GP to my post is talking about the Google search page that has Suggest activated within it. It looks basically like the normal google search page up to the point you start typing-in queries.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21742078)

Not sure if this is exactly what you are looking for, but on Firefox you can customize the width of the search box. One way to do it is through the userChrome.css file. Just add the following lines to it:

#search-container, #searchbar {
width: 200px !important;

width can be adjusted to whatever pixel size your eyes desire.

The file can be found for windows installs at:
\Documents and Settings\\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\.default\chrome

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

UbuntuDupe (970646) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740084)

Exactly what I was thinking. Search engines, especially Google, are great at picking out the important search terms, even if you do type it as a standard question. So being able to specifically parse natural-language questions seems to have a low reward-to-effort ratio. If you're going to natural language processing, the goal should be to simplify a difficult problem. For example, translating between languages automatically, which takes YEARS of training for an individual to be able to do consistently.

Saving someone from the HORROR of having to click "did you mean?" or spend five minutes learning how to use a search engine? Don't bother.

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

encoderer (1060616) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741114)

Another way to try Google Suggest would be just to install Firefox itself, sans toolbar, and use the browsers Search Box...

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (1)

Malkin (133793) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741120)

I agree. Being a programmer, I think natural language is good for talking to other human beings, and hopelessly inefficient for anything else. Why recite Dickens to a dishwasher, when it has perfectly good knobs and buttons? Why do we constantly suffer under this mad delusion that computers are somehow meant to act like people? Alas, Turing, why did you steer us off this cliff?

Re:natural language is an oxymoron (2, Funny)

Intron (870560) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742746)

You: What larks, eh, Pip?
You: I ent dun nuffink!

Lojban could help (1)

Besna (1175279) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739742)

I wonder if any of these types of translation or recognition engines use Lojban as an intermediary. The unambiguous yet rich grammar of Lojban is ideal for representing different languages. Eventually, it will be used directly.

Re:Lojban could help (2, Insightful)

CRCulver (715279) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739904)

I wonder if any of these types of translation or recognition engines use Lojban as an intermediary.

No, researchers in this field generally aren't kooks. Mainstream researchers realize that conlangs are not appropriate objects of study.

Eventually, it will be used directly.

When even Lojban supporters admit that they have not succeeded in carrying on conversations for much longer than a few minutes in the language, then it doesn't look too likely that the project will take off.

Furthermore, wasn't the point of Lojban initially to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by teaching a child only Lojban? I'd hope that any parents that embarked upon such a stunt would be prosecuted for child abuse, because you would have to isolate a child from all human society to ensure he doesn't learn the local language.

Esperanto (1)

Besna (1175279) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740314)

Esperanto, for one, makes a perfect study for researchers. Your brush is too broad. Your cynicism and jadedness are disappointing.

The problem with natural language searches... (2, Insightful)

eln (21727) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739786)

The problem with natural language searches is that natural language itself is a moving target. Sure, ten years ago "How do you change the air filter in a Toyota Camry?" would have been a legitimate question to ask a search engine online, but these days it would probably be asked like "lol how do u chng filtr in my pos car? kthxbye :)". I don't know how Google is supposed to keep up with that.

Re:The problem with natural language searches... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21739910)

u opn hd, tk off top of big rnd blk thng, rmv rnd sqzbx thng, put new sqzbx in, rplc top, cls hd.

lol easy, looser


Re:The problem with natural language searches... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21740074)

My eyes are bleeding...

Re:The problem with natural language searches... (1)

AutopsyReport (856852) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740120)

Welcome to Mikita's. How may I serve you?
- I'd like 'rullers, 'ugar, 'ucks and a Mikita 'cup... And then I think I would like a large... ...with 'eam.
- And could I please have 'elly donut and... ...raspberry and a 'nge drink?

- I'm sorry. And 'eaker 'oken.

Let me recap the order: A cruller, two sugar pucks, a large coffee with cream, a raspberry jelly doughnut, orange drink, a box of five-holes.

- Yeah.
Thank you. Drive around, please.

Re:The problem with natural language searches... (1, Informative)

AnyoneEB (574727) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740236)

Most linguists currently believe in the existance of something called "universal grammar", which is a set of properties common to all acquirable human languages (that is, langauges which can be learned as a native language). If you were able to get a computer to comprehend one language (or probably a few to make sure you have sufficiently generalized your principles), then additional languages and dialects would be relatively easy: just give it enough examples of sentences in that language, and the computer will figure out its grammar. Babies can do it. Google should have enough data for that from the web crawls it already does. Keeping up with language evolution is a nearly trivial problem compared to language understanding.

Of course, getting the computer to understand one language is a monumental task.

Re:The problem with natural language searches... (3, Insightful)

vertinox (846076) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741122)

Most linguists currently believe in the existance of something called "universal grammar", which is a set of properties common to all acquirable human languages (that is, langauges which can be learned as a native language).

The argument against universal grammar is of course is non-Latin languages like Japanese (and possibly Russian) which don't play by the rules. I'm not really a language expert on either, but I'm tried to learn Japanese and its really tough.

Everything is relationship based off the speaker and to the person or object he is talking about and then the audience. As in... If I'm talking about a pencil sitting on my desk, it has a different tense than a pencil on your desk and then a difference tense in someone else's hand or a pencil that is sitting at a far off place (-sara or -kara? I can't remember). And we haven't even gotten to issues about ownership like if it was in my hand or your hand.

Whereas in Latin based languages it is more concerned about action or tense of ownership but not relationship to the speaker or audience. Hence... It is argued universal grammar does not apply in that respect.

Re:The problem with natural language searches... (1)

kalidasa (577403) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741818)

It's more a matter of principles and parameters that every language chooses from: there's a universal set of principles and a universal set of parameters, and every language is built up on a general structure developed from a combination of several of the first set plus several of the second set. One could imagine that a new language invented ex nihilo would begin by assign signs (usually phonemes) to signifieds (objects in the real world, concepts, processes, etc.) and relate them to one another by means of these principles and parameters in ways that would generate a system of morphology and syntax. This kind of structure holds for all languages, no matter how far they are from e.g. the IE languages (by the way, English is NOT a latinate language - it is a Germanic language that has acquired a great deal of secondary latinate vocabulary). The problem is working out what all the principles and parameters are (we only know some of them) and seeing how they are instantiated in various natural languages.

Re:The problem with natural language searches... (2, Funny)

OWJones (11633) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742160)

I'm not really a language expert on either, but I'm tried to learn Japanese and its really tough.

Perhaps you should try and nail down English first. :)


Re:The problem with natural language searches... (1)

Chapter80 (926879) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742300)

Behind every sentence is an idea (or several). And an idea can be parsed and stored unambiguously. (Allow me to remove the ambiguity in the previous sentence... there can be a machine readable representation of every idea, in which the representation is unambiguous. Even ambiguous ideas can have an unambiguous representation.)

Check out the language Lojban [] for just one way to do this.

Re:The problem with natural language searches... (1)

rsborg (111459) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742406)

The argument against universal grammar is of course is non-Latin languages like Japanese (and possibly Russian) which don't play by the rules. I'm not really a language expert on either, but I'm tried to learn Japanese and its really tough.
You do realize that universal grammar allows different languages to have different rules, right? The universality is about how nouns and verbs exist in sentences, and relate to each other, etc. Even in French vs. English, genderization and possession are wildly different, but the basic universal structure is the same as English (Example: talking about my wife's father, I would say, effectively "his father" which is wrong in English... it's "her father"... this leads to some very weird sounding things between the two language speakers).

Universality does NOT imply that all the grammar rules will be the same at all.

phrase/sentence? (1)

Scrameustache (459504) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739798)

Most of what we do is at the word and phrase level; we're not concentrating on the sentence.
What's the difference between a phrase and a sentence?

Re:phrase/sentence? (4, Informative)

harmonica (29841) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739902)

A phrase is part of a sentence. WP []

Re:phrase/sentence? (1)

admactanium (670209) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739930)

What's the difference between a phrase and a sentence?
i'd assume it's something like the difference between "how do i set up my d-link router?" and "d-link router set up". i believe google already parses out "natural language" queries about as well as any other search engine, including ask jeeves, which was supposed to use natural language as its unique selling proposition. google does give different results for both queries but both sets of results seem to be relevant.

i'm more curious about how the use of keywords in google searches will affect "natural language" as we move forward. it used to be necessary to form coherent sentences to gather information and now it's rather the opposite. i think the generation of kids growing up now probably tend to think in keywords first. we already see tech-savvy people substituting tech phrases for real world phrases. what happens when a vast majority of kids growing up have access to technology and the internet?

Re:phrase/sentence? (1)

teslar (706653) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740012)

i'd assume it's something like
Not to be pedantic, but why assume when Wikipedia [] is just a click away and can show you that your assumption is wrong?

Re:phrase/sentence? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21739954)

Phrases are a subpart of sentences, a group of words which form a single unit within the sentence from a syntax point of view.
"There is a phrase in this sentence" is a sentence - within that "in this sentence" for instance is a phrase.

Re:phrase/sentence? (1)

iabervon (1971) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740130)

The most significant thing in their case is that the phrases they deal with don't have verbs (and the associated syntactic function words). They're talking about noun phrases, which go from just after a word like "the" to the next word that's nested less deeply than "the". For example, "most significant thing" or "associated syntactic function words". You know, like the things you might type into a Google search...

somebody tell me (1)

rossdee (243626) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739806)

What is 'natural' about the English language?

Re:somebody tell me (2, Informative)

lstellar (1047264) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739974)

Everything. All languages are natural. In fact, the spoken word is as good a subject to study evolution and 'survival of the fittest' (to a degree) as any biological organism. The way that different languages and dialects have collided over the years and weeded out words, phrases and structures that work or don't work is one of the most complex and interesting topics around. Despite its quirks the English language is as natural as any creole or foreign language out there, simply evolved differently.

Re:somebody tell me (1)

the-matt-mobile (621817) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741118)

I hope you're just being rhetorical, because giving it just a bit of thought would have provided the answer. Language is a seeminlgly advanced skill, yet most humans pick it up as toddlers. If you've never had a 3-year old, let me tell you they can express some pretty complicated thought processes verbally. And it doesn't matter what language it is - the vast majority of toddlers communicate and comprehend others' communications - all when they still have not mastered so many other 'simple' things. Language is very natural - even simpler life forms than humans communicate with one another.

Google and Asimov's fictional Multivac (3, Interesting)

dpbsmith (263124) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739816)

Isaac Asimov's fictional Multivac was a huge computer with some near-universal knowledge database that answered natural-language questions, giving Asimov all sorts of opportunities to present philosophical conundrums as entertaining short stories.

In the 1960s and thereabouts, when I used to hack around on minicomputers, but personal computers weren't well known to the general public, I always found it difficult to explain what computers did. One of their commonest questions was "Well, how does it work, do you type in questions and does it answer them?" Programming in assembly language didn't really fit that description.

Many technological fantasies seem to remain surprisingly distance. I tried ViaVoice and gave up: it's not a "voice typewriter." Roomba is not a general-purpose housekeeping humanoid-form robot, and neither are the machines that weld automobile chassis.

However, it seems to me that Google is within striking distance of Asimov's "Multivac" fantasy.

Incidentally, if you type in queries as complete sentences Google seems to do any worse than if you don't. Sort of the converse of adventure games, where one begins by typing "Walk over to the table on the left and pick up the silver key with your left hand" and quickly learns to use telegraphic style: "Go table. Take key."

Oh, for an "edit" button... (1)

dpbsmith (263124) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739850)

I meant that "if you type in queries as complete sentences, Google doesn't to do any worse than if you don't." That is, even though it's not an advertised feature, you can use natural language with Google if you like. It just doesn't help you; you might just as well use truncated phrases.

Re:Google and Asimov's fictional Multivac (1)

Arancaytar (966377) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739962)

I tried ViaVoice about eight years ago and I heard that signal recognition - both OCR and VR - have come a long way since then. Haven't tried it though, and I don't know how good ViaVoice is now.

Also, "What is the sine of half pi and a half times the cosine of one quarter plus the answer to life, the universe, and everything?" works correctly. I found this pretty awesome.

Great advance (1)

PolarBearFire (1176791) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739824)

It would actually be a great advance, but the resources required would not offset its advantages since 99% of the time you can find what you're looking for using keywords and phrases.

You Usually Can Now (1)

Greyfox (87712) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739836)

I tell new users that they should just ask Google a question in plain english. That gives the a more natural context in which to embed their keywords. I know Google is just picking up on the keywords and ignoring the filler words, but it usually gets the correct results and it's a lot easier for people who are just starting out on the Internet.

Stop Gaming the System (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21739914)

I suggest they focus their efforts on preventing websites from gaming the system.

How many time shave you entered a search term that is a company's name, expecting to see that company's link on the first page only to be shown a bunch of links to dumb ass search sites that have gamed the google search engine?

this is also why (5, Insightful)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739916)

text-to-speech or speech-to-text is also useless (unless your blind/ deaf/ driving a car)

the idea of interacting with a computer like a human is an artificial hangover from being introduced to the computer the first time. after using it for awhile, you realize that ineracting with a computer, in small limited ways, like searching information, is easier NOT using natural language

for the very simple reason that it takes more thought, and more typing to interact naturally. it is easier to train a human to interact with a computer than it is to train a computer to interact with a human. and for the human, it is more rewarding, because the human realizes he doesn't need to exert so much effort

"what is the capital of france?"


"france capital"

if you were to shout "france capital" at someone, it would be rude and confusing. but for a computer, it's actually superior

it is the conservation of communication effort at work here that wins out over natural language in computer interaction

The capital of France (5, Funny)

CruddyBuddy (918901) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740150)

Paris Hilton says:

"That's easy! The capital of France is 'F'."

Re:this is also why (1)

garcia (6573) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740180)

if you were to shout "france capital" at someone, it would be rude and confusing. but for a computer, it's actually superior

I know what you're trying to get at but that example wasn't exactly a good one. The search engine could simply strip all the words that are pointless (is, the, and of). I'm sure that if it accepted natural search words like "what" that would automatically be eliminated too.

My biggest question is how many searches come from people in a natural way? Since Sunday only two have landed at my site out of 12,206 searches across the various engines:

1. What does Ba-Tampte mean (yahoo)

2. What type of mushrooms to put on pizza (google)

If I'm at such a low percentage for natural language searching, I can only imagine that it's even less for the whole lot. Why bother to fix something that isn't broken?

Re:this is also why (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21740390)

if you were to shout "france capital" at someone, it would be rude and confusing. but for a computer, it's actually superior
Not really superior, but sufficient for the systems of today.

The next evolution in computer search is understanding what documents really satisfy "what is the capital of france" versus returning anything with "france" and "capital" in its text such as "France should always be spelled with a capital letter". Google doesn't attempt to differentiate and they leave you to filter the results manually to find what you want.

The reason for natural language interfaces is not simply to collect the keywords, it is to understand the context within which you want results and filter out meaningless results. Google uses a pagerank that should bubble the more common meanings of the keywords to the top. But I still find myself having to filter out tons of irrelevant results to get to a very specific results that is 4 or 5 pages down. So I then have to learn to think like a computer and add other keyword context that differentiates the result I want. Like "france capital -letter -capitalization +city" and inevitably I end up filtering out results that fit my context, but happen to have terms that I filtered on.

So searching on meaning is still a holy grail. And in fact, I'm surprised this guy from Google said this when another Google engineer at Ideafest stated very matter of factly that Google's future was in natural language 'star trek' like computer systems. This is completely contrary to what is being said here.

star trek as a guide? (1)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741022)

then i won't be impressed until i can type "earl grey, hot" into google and find a nice cup of tea on my cd tray

Re:star trek as a guide? (1)

amh131 (126681) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742334)

It seems rather more likely that you would get something that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

Re:this is also why (1)

Sciros (986030) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741442)

This is only true for basic queries where interpreting the queries as bags of words would suffice.

Besides, for communication via speech it's completely unnatural to say "france capital" to a machine as opposed to "what is the capital of France," even. So for speech recognition systems NLP really helps out.

Real questions ... (4, Interesting)

foobsr (693224) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739922)

Typing "What is the capital of France?" won't get you better results than typing "capital of France." ... Most of what we do is at the word and phrase level; we're not concentrating on the sentence. We think it's important to get the right results rather than change the interface.

This misses situations like searching for "That sf-short-story were the crew of the visiting spaceship is given a dog as a present" in which googling failed, at least for me, or, more technically, when you have absolutely no idea about what the relevant terms within the outcome might be. In short, if you have a real question.


Re:Real questions ... (1)

Blakey Rat (99501) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741916)

Yeah, recently I had that problem with "that one Bradbury story where the spacemen landed on Venus and it rained all the time and half of them went insane, also there were natives hunting them I think."

Re:Real questions ... (1)

zombie_striptease (966467) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742054)

Some quick Googling lead me to The Long Rain [] , though I only got to that by remembering how the native venusians liked to take their time torturing and drowning visitors and having those keywords to add.

Re:Real questions ... (1)

zombie_striptease (966467) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742118)

My point being that a natural language search may not be enough to answer such queries, you'd pretty much need a massively advanced AI that could synthesize knowledge to understand your summaries and pick through which content matches.

Users have changed, too (2, Insightful)

harmonica (29841) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739932)

These days, hardly any user enters queries in the form of natural language questions, judging from log files. That was different a couple of years ago.

Just like "Click here to do X" isn't used as much on Web pages anymore. People now tend to know that they can click on underlined text to find out more.

Re:Users have changed, too (1)

cowscows (103644) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740424)

Exactly. If there was ever a real need to be able to do natural language searches, that time is basically over. People have been learning how to search the internet effectively, it's not really that hard to do it successfully. As the general populace gets more and more computer and internet savvy, a lot of this sort of thing becomes almost intuitive.

Natural Language from a linguistics... (1)

lstellar (1047264) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739940)

Natural Language from a linguistics perspective incorporate into a search engine will be truely innovative technology. After reading the article and his wording, it seems clear that it isn't so much that pursuing search via natural language is fruitless, but that it is borderline unattainable at the moment. Using keywords allows to the person performing the query to filter their own natural thought.

"Hm, I wonder how many moons Saturn has? I will Google 'Saturn+Moons.'"

This method is by far the most effective and least time consuming today, but the day we are able to think what we want and then search for what we want with no filtration necessary will coincide with the advent of true artificial intelligence. Linguistics (and thus, 'Natural Language') is one of the most complex studies in the world. The creation, evolution and implementation of different dialects within any given lexicon are very difficult to understand, let alone across different languages. 'Natural Language' search will be impossible to truly implement until we fully understand the way we communicate to one another. Simply extracting words or operators, clearly as we know, simply doesn't work. It is the complex relationship that matters. But once we figure that out- and we will- we will be at the next great step forward.

Re:Natural Language from a linguistics... (1)

foobsr (693224) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740254)

But once we figure that out- and we will- we will be at the next great step forward.

Might take some time though. It seems that the arguments brought forward by TAUBE [] (1961 !, Computers and Common Sense, the Myth of Thinking Machines) against the feasibility of machine translation still hold and apply to the problem in focus.


Phrase level? (1)

RecoveredMarketroid (569802) | more than 6 years ago | (#21739944)

Most of what we do is at the word and phrase level; we're not concentrating on the sentence.
No wonder AI:A Modern Approach is such a tough read!

what is google, freakin' jeeves? (2, Insightful)

crazybilly (947714) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740056)

do people really type questions into search boxes? that always stumped me about the ask jeeves thing....who the crap really ASKED anything. I thought you just googled what you wanted to know about (or nowadays, hit the wikipedia page for it for starters).

Maybe I'm just not up on my search engine technology (or, rather, I don't know anything about it). I just don't know anybody who'd think to put a regular question into google.

Re:what is google, freakin' jeeves? (1)

dcroxton (812365) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741926)

I always use keywords, since I know that's all it's using anyway. That's why it drives me nuts on Microsoft Office when I type in some keywords and it asks for a complete sentence. Why?? I want to ask. Does it have some super-advanced way to figure out what I mean, or is it just going to pick out the keywords anyway?

How to Kill Google: (1)

Ralph Spoilsport (673134) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740332)

Develop a natural language search engine that provides results that are as effective as Google's.

I wonder if MS or Yahoo are listening...


How search is really used (2, Informative)

Animats (122034) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740376)

If you have the opportunity to look at query logs, you see how dumb most search engine queries are.

First, a big fraction of queries are simply navigational. Many are just URLs. The major search providers recognize these in the front end machines and send back canned answers, without even passing them to the real search engine. If you type "myspace" into Google, very little work is expended returning the canned reply.

After that, most queries are one word. Phrase queries are less common.

Few people seem to have noticed, but Google started returning results based on synonyms and homonyms a few weeks ago. There have been some significant algorithm changes recently.

Less than 1% of queries use any operators, like '"" or '-'.

The real problem with natural language queries, though, is that "Ask Jeeves" was a flop. Remember Ask Jeeves? That was a system designed to process queries written as sentences. But it wasn't used that way, and didn't succeed commercially.

He's lying (4, Insightful)

helicologic (845077) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740416)

I think Norvig's lying. Google may not be pursuing linguistic structure above the phrase level in searches, but I'd bet a donut they're working their asses off trying to analyze crawled docs linguistically. To get relevance, they need to extract what a document is about. That implies sentence-level syntax analysis, which is input to sentence-level semantics, which is input to paragraph-level semantics, which is input to "pragmatic" analysis. I think what he's not saying is that the place the linguistic research dollars are going is elsewhere than parsing "Where is Paris?"

Re:He's lying (1)

clodney (778910) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741422)

Even with Google's computing resources, I think attempting to do natural language analysis of the entire Internet would be a daunting proposition.

Even though the number of queries processed every day is immense, the amount of text to analyze pales in comparison to the amount of text on the pages they crawl every day.

Of course, they could prune their search set considerably if they just assumed that there is no semantic content in most MySpace pages and blog entries.

Re:He's lying (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21741854)

"Lying" is a bit harsh. He isn't lying, but you are not wrong.

Watch some Google Tech Talk videos. I no longer remember which one it was (some sort of "here's how we do things" discussion of how Google works...) but a Google guy commented that people quickly adapt to using a search engine: a first-time user might type "Where can I get a rebuilt engine for a 1976 Pacer?" but after less than a month of using Google that same user would just type "rebuilt engine 1976 Pacer". So Google concluded that attempts to parse natural language are not interesting. However, that same speaker said that of course they are always working to give better results; he had an example where a UC Berkeley cooking class was called "Thai Food 101" (and the page did not contain the words "Berkeley" or "cooking class"), and he showed how that page can be returned as a result for search keywords "cooking class Berkeley". They are building data structures to try to group pages by concepts.

Where Are We? (1)

ImYY4U (539546) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740456)

Answer: This. OK, programming joke aside, seriously...natural language should not be incorporated into search engines. What about generic questions, such as my subject line? What would Google return? What SHOULD Google return to that? Do a tracert on the user's IP, and answer with a map? Seriously, to implement natural language searching capability would be quite a feat. Especially in the age of, "ROFLMAO wtf iz 4 computa?!!1"

A hint of direction and technology (1)

ngreenfeld (321295) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740514)

For those who are speculating about where they are going, a possibility is in a recent (within 5 years) article by William A. Woods, one of the top natural language researchers. His work at Sun was about using noun phrases (turned into concepts) as search guides. No idea if this is relevant to Google, but the work seems very promising.

And sorry, I don't have the reference handy.

Me Tarzan; You Jane (2, Insightful)

peter303 (12292) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740524)

How much natural language do you really need for a search? Not much.

Not worth processing sentences (2, Insightful)

192939495969798999 (58312) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740766)

All you have to do is look at Yahoo answers' average question clarity to get a sense of why whole-sentence AI may not be the best strategy for a search engine.

Question Answering research (1)

msbmsb (871828) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740784)

For Natural Language Processing [] and Question Answering [] research activities, search for "AQUAINT (DTO OR ARDA OR IARPA) [] " and also the NIST [] TREC [] (Text Retrieval Conference) workshops and research competitions.

There is a lot of interesting work out there and some answers as to why more precise information finding through natural language input is useful.

What search will do to language (1)

ooutland (146624) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740950)

As a commenter indicated, it's easier for us to adapt to computers than to adapt them to us. Long term question: as we adapt to our computers, using handfuls of keywords instead of sentences, how will it affect the language itself? Change in language comes from technology now, c.f. "w00t" as word of the year or the most popular txtmsg acronyms.

Will we be reduced to the news people in that beer commercial who sum it all up in 10 seconds so they can go drink? It could have a positive effect in stripping language of fuzziness; if you were to Google 'initiating mobilizing synergistic dynamics to maximize total quality excellence,' you wouldn't get much, because it's b.s., whereas 'build better mousetrap' would give you hard data. Meetings would certainly get shorter if we were forced to communicate in searchable terms.

On the other hand, storytelling would suffer. "Boy girl meets gets loses" is ideal search terminology, but doesn't exactly pull the heartstrings.

Language vs. keywords (1)

Punk CPA (1075871) | more than 6 years ago | (#21740976)

I agree with the other comments that it is much easier to get the user up to speed than to make search criteria easy for naive users. Remember Ask Jeeves? That implementation of natural language queries gave results that were not much better than random. Serious users quickly catch on to the tricks of word order, quotes, +/-, etc. Really, it's not much harder than typing a sentence and gives more predictable results.

NLP is very useful (2, Informative)

Sciros (986030) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741138)

Natural language processing is useful when it is well-done. Getting it well-done is the tough part. Don't let Google reps trick you into thinking otherwise just because their R&D in the field isn't where they'd probably like it to be.

Here are some situations where it's useful:
1) interpreting a question rather than just treating it as a "bag of words." For instance, one can type "how tall is Mt. Everest" in the search bar and Google, rather than searching for documents that contain those 5 (or so) tokens will interpret that as a query asking for height and also search for documents that contain "Mt.", "Everest", and "height". Take that a step further and it might look for strings that represent height such as a number followed by "ft" or "meters" or "m".

2) Condensing query chains. Suppose you want to know what sport our 4th president enjoyed playing most. You can ask "what sport did the fourth president of the US like playing?" and the system will give you an answer by first interpreting "fourth president of the US" as Madison, and then searching for what sports Madison enjoyed playing. If not for such interpretation you would either have to run 2 queries (first to find out who the 4th president was, then what sports he liked), or hope that there is a document out there that Google's indexed that contains the words in that initial query.

3) Speech recognition! If you want to run a Q/A session with a computer system that has a speech recognition front end, it is more natural (easier and faster) to ask it "how tall is mt. everest?" than to say "mount everest height" or whatever you would end up typing into Google today. People like to speak using *natural language,* after all. They would gladly do it with computers if the SR systems in them were good enough (some are).

4) More precise query results. What's better, getting back a document that is likely to contain the answer to your query, or getting back the sentence that contains it? Or better yet, getting back the answer and nothing else? The more robust an NLP system the more complicated queries it can interpret and the more elegant its result can be.

On that note, Google actually *does perform* NLP on queries despite what from the summary (I didn't RTFA) looks like claims to the contrary. If you ask Google "how tall is Mt. Everest?" it actually DOES interpret that particular sentence and gives you the answer -- 29000ft or thereabouts. And you only get such an elegant result if you type "how tall is Mt. Everest" (without quotes) or "Mt. Everest how tall". Other queries of this nature will not give you quite as precise a response.

I already do this anyway. (1)

singingjim1 (1070652) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741226)

I phrase a majority of my searches as questions already and get back reasonable results. Like Norvig said, it's about the words in general and their meaning together in a phrase. In my experience I ask and I receive. What's the problem?

Classic Debate (1)

LarryIsMe (945734) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741230)

From my view, this is the classic debate in technology: emulating nature vs. reinventing nature.

When people first tried to fly, they copied birds but the better solution was to understand the principles of aerodynamics and
leverage the technology available.

The wheel was a better idea than trying to recreate feet.

In the key words vs natural language debate, Google has shown that key words is the better solution for now.

The real question is: how do you make searches more intuitive to the person making the search?

After all, usability is the only criteria that matters. claims to have a natural language search that's superior to the keywords searches. Let's see if PowerSet has the service to back up its boasts. currently hides its service -- which is not a good sign.

What could possibly be wrong with that? (3, Insightful)

Dan East (318230) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741254)

> wii
Your query does not include a verb.

> find wii
Whose "wii" do you want me to find?

> find wii review
Unable to find any reviews authored by "wii".

> find review about wii
No reviews found concerning the common noun "wii".

> find review about Wii
Here is the most recent review about the proper noun "Wii": [url to a page full of keywords related to Wii]

> find review about Wii order by relevence
"relevence" is not an English word. Did you mean "relevance"?

> find review about Wii order by relevance
Here is the most relevant review about Wii: [url to a 2 year old pre-review of the Wii before it was launched]

> find review about Wii order by relevance then date
Here is the most recent and most relevant review about Wii: [url to a fanboy site]

> find all reviews about Wii order by relevance then date

> abort
Abort what?

> abort search
I am currently performing 1,231,415 searches. Which search do you want me to abort?

> abort last search
You do not have permission to abort others' searches.

> abort my last search
Last search aborted.

> find several reviews about Wii order by relevance then date
"Several" is not a quantifiable adjective. Do you mean "seven"?

> find seven reviews about Wii order by relevance then date
Here are your results. For better search results please capitalize the first word of sentences, and end sentences with proper punctuation.

Dan East

Re:What could possibly be wrong with that? (1)

Sciros (986030) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741860)

Wow Dan East your NLP system is a real piece of trash. You should look at how most systems of this sort are actually put together before making a pointless straw man. :-P

What about Karen? (0, Offtopic)

timtimtim2000 (884095) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741406)

Google should look to Karen, the computer wife of Plankton on SpongeBob SquarePants. Karen is so advanced her natural language responses even include sarcasm.

Powerset (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21741456)

At least one startup is betting that natural language search will be the way to go. A number of ex-yahoo people there.

Natural Language is Stupid and Limiting (1)

eno2001 (527078) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741576)

While natural language might seem like a good idea to people who are less technical, it's actually a really bad idea. It would slow a lot of things down in terms of search and would bring with it deep inefficiencies. Frankly, I think search engines would be improved if they offered advanced features with brief commands (kind of like how Unix abbreviates 'copy' as 'cp' or 'move' as 'mv'). For example, which do you think is better when you want to move quickly, a vehicle with wheels, or a bipedal vehicle with legs? The answer is obvious, wheels trump legs for speed. The same with language interfaces to computers. A middle language between machine and human language is the best approach. With a focus on efficiency and no ambiguity whatsoever. Loglan. There you go. move along...

wordnet, subjects, and more (1)

Aradorn (750787) | more than 6 years ago | (#21741996)

first step to building a NLP like search engine would be to map words to their respective subjects (or classification) - this has already been done with wordnet. then as you crawl the net you map the words found to your heirarchy, and you keep a running total of frequency of words on the document as well as the frequency on the net. Eventually, you can sift out the words that have little to no meaning (words that appear frequently typically have no meaning - the, a, and, but, etc...).

Now combine this with pagerank and social ranking and you can refine search results down pretty quickly. During my undergrad I was able to get really good results with this method but I needed more sites in my index to really see if it would work.

Essentially what happens is your queries start off broad and you refine the results down by providing more terms to search by that are associated with the line of queries. (This is how search engines like ( was the company that focused on this) work).

Re:wordnet, subjects, and more (1)

Helios1182 (629010) | more than 6 years ago | (#21742532)

I can assure you that WordNet has been used in many more advanced ways than that, but it still generally doesn't outperform less language based algorithms. WordNet doesn't really provide that much semantic information. There are other resources like VerbNet, FrameNet, Corelex, and PropBank that work on capturing the semantics. If you are using WordNet and only keywords you run into big problems with ambiguity, and there isn't enough information in 3 keywords to allow regular word sense disambiguation methods to work. Using full natural language sentences would help a bit, but it is still limited. You really need to identify the correct semantics for the documents in order to make them easier to search.

What did he say? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21742032)

There are several problems with using natural language as a query language. For example, my northern neighbor, from Jamaica, is understandable and my Sothern neighbor, from Columbia, is intelligible but I tend to have to translate idioms between them. Illustrating that there are only about 6 billion natural languages to deal with. And you must use lots of short sentences with children, but longer more complex phraseology with adults.

The other problem is that because most words get repurposed over time and fields of study, a lot of natural language is used to set the context. The word "affluent" means quite different things when talking about watersheds and neighborhoods. And the rules of grammar pretty much guarantee that the words "watershed" and "affluent" would be in separate phrases with all the intervening words the phrases need. Hence the natural language query would be much more voluminous and need much more processing.

Still once computers can "read" a paper and "understand" what it says; a natural language query might be more efficient for constraining the search. (What rivers are affluent to the Blue Nile south of the 34th parallel?) But while the search engine scanners scan a document and create a key word distance measure on improbable words the improbable key word set will still be the most efficient query language. (Returning the containing documents instead of the answer.)
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