2004 will be the year of the analysis engine
The great strength of computers is that they can reliably manipulate vast amounts of data very quickly. Their great weakness is that they don't have a clue as to what any of that data actually means.
Computer scientists have been laboring for decades to eliminate that weakness, with some limited successes in some limited domains. Now, IBM Corp. appears to have made a major breakthrough in the field of machine understanding. The results could spell big business not just for IBM but for data miners, content providers, retailers, political consultants, market analysts, and any other group that relies on information as part of its stock in trade.
IBM's breakthrough is called WebFountain–half a football field's worth of rack-mounted processors, routers, and disk drives running a huge menagerie of programs. All this hardware and software is dedicated to one purpose: making sense of the churning ocean of information, opinion, and falsehood that roils the Internet every second of every day.
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For example, imagine a marketing researcher trying to find out the online attitude of consumers toward the popular rock singer Pink. The researcher would have to wade through an ocean of search results to sort out which Web pages were talking about Pink, the person, rather than pink, the color.
What such a researcher needs is not another search engine, but something beyond that–an analysis engine that can sniff out its own clues about a document's meaning and then provide insight into what the search results mean in aggregate. And that's just what IBM is about to deliver. In a few months, in partnership with Factiva, a New York City online news company, it will launch the first commercial test of WebFountain with a service that will allow companies to keep track of their online reputation–what journalists are reporting about them, what people are writing about them in blogs, what people are saying about them in chat rooms–without having to employ an army of full-time Web surfers. [Privacy Digest]