Corrections or additions?

This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the February 13,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Technology Review: Likeit

Imagine if computers offered you a little human

flexibility.

What a refreshing blessing. "It was that Congresswoman," you

vaguely recall, "Barbara what’s her name. The only one who voted

against giving President Bush the extraordinary powers to conduct

the Taliban War. She said something like `not letting a crisis erode

the Constitution.’ I’d like to hear some comment on that

statement."

Until recently, friend, you were out of luck. Don’t try the Wall

Street

Journal Online, or The New York Times, you’ll have to have her full

name spelled exactly right. You might try EBSCO magazine index at

your local library for the phrase, but you’d better have the quotation

pinned down word for word.

So on what netscape lies a little human compassion? Check out "the

world’s premier conservative magazine," National Review Online

(www.National Review.com). The site delivers it all, and even after

second-guessing your fuzzy memory, it can spider briskly across an

array of cross-indexed articles and lay the exact text before your

screen.

One blessing of the Web is that it makes room for all every author’s

expertise. The typically 68-page print issue of the National Review

magazine has cramped space for about 10 short articles and a few even

shorter departments. But www.National Review.com allows the editor

to focus dozens of responses on a single issue alone. Every utterance

of William F. Buckley, whether made in his column or not, can be

linked in. When sought, a dozen rebuttals hit the screen denouncing

any statement made on any issue by any Kennedy, living or dead.

The National Review Online takes full advantage of the endless expanse

of cyberspace. It’s very readable "America at War" feature

conveniently slices the events into five day chunks, with dozens of

commentaries and articles covering each item falling within that

period. Contributors have their entire writing history listed in

abstract and full text.

An author’s books are not only mentioned, but linked

into Amazon.com for quick purchase. Special features, like the Pfizer

Forum, can pull in Dr. Frank Lichtenberg’s drug-spending commentary,

the full text of which is not in the Review, but in "The

Economist."

The National Review Online is less a webzine, than a full resource

library of conservative literature.

Yet the largest library in the world is only as good as its catalog.

Physical libraries use highly trained experts to cross-index each

volume and later find it for use. The National Review’s website

employs Likeit, the search engine developed by Peter Yianilos,

formerly a senior scientist at NEC Research Institute on Independence

Way.

Yianilos is one of the computer world’s true prodigies. At age 12,

he would get picked up from school and driven to his job of writing

new data code for a local Florida corporation. By high school, he

was solving problems of speech recognition. Later, armed with a

computer science Ph.D. from Princeton University, Yianilos began a

20-year quest to perfect the Web search engine. Finally, in l998,

Likeit, on its fourth technological generation, was ready to power

massive websites. Yianilos licensed the technology he had worked on

from NEC and founded his own firm, Netrics, at 707 State Road,

Princeton (609-683-4002, www.netrics.com).

Likeit, so named because of its ability to find not only exact items,

but those somewhat like the one requested, is a step forward in the

battle against computer frustration. Previously, most search engines

demanded exact quotations. A few, using a method known as parsing,

would try to second guess typical human errors, in the manner of a

spell checker.

But Netrics’ Likeit engine transcends these into the realm of almost

frightening human-style intuition. Theorizing that the human eye

provided the ideal text-scrutinizing pattern, Yianilos used the

bipartite

graph matching method. Basically the text of each search query is

treated as a string of characters and matched for similar occurrences

in the database. This allows for as few as four characters in 10 to

match up and still be unearthed. Thus searching EBUTSHIEX will still

net you National Review’s latest commentaries on our president.

Once found, the search item is presented on the sliding scale of the

"Match Strength Indicator." This indicator displays in

highlighted red characters exactly matching your search and fades down

a color scale to dark blue as the match becomes less exact. I was able

to find the holdout voting Congresswoman Barbara Lee with her name all

written in red, yet I was also introduced to conservative Woman’s

Forum leader Barbara Leeden with a name dwindling off to deeper

shades.

No new system is without flaws, however. Netrics reports that those

visiting the National Review Online home page with Netscape may

experience

some trouble in getting through to the initial search room. I could

only reach it by typing "Bush" in the keyword box.

Interestingly,

"Clinton" afforded me no access.

Netrics’ Likeit is finding acceptance not only among vastly networked

magazines like The National Review Online, with its approximately

4,000 searches monthly, but also with high-traffic E-tail sites. BMG

Direct, the huge online music distributor with monthly hits numbering

in the hundreds of thousands, has selected Netrics to help its

customers

name that tune. Cerner, a national leader in healthcare software,

has also adopted the Likeit engine and now offers it to its clients.

The set-up fee for customers is $2,000. Hosting fees run about $500

a month, but vary based on the amount of data stored and the site’s

traffic. For the big players, the $20,000 Enterprise Central

Processing

Unit is available. A server version allows customers to protect their

firewalls by handling the operation themselves.

For many people, the thought of artificial intelligence may appear

frightening. Most of us really never liked Star Trek’s Data. And

computers

that condescend to our errors, correcting our foibles with a more

exact thought, may seem an invasion into that realm which we have

always kept sacred for ourselves. But as for me, I am willing to

stride

right on, if just once I can get that dumb little box to listen up

and bark back the stuff I seek. It would be a very refreshing change.

— Bart Jackson


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