On answer search

I’m convinced that there is at least one Stanford computer science professor who thinks that natural language answer search (you type any question in English, you get an answer back in English) is a key step to unlocking a future of advanced artificial intelligence. Why else would a huge chunk of Silicon Valley startups, and most of the established players in tech, be obsessed with creating answer-based products? The idea, if I had to guess, is that first you crowdsource a crazy amount of facts and opinions on every conceivable topic, then eventually we’ll see the dawn of a glorious era in which machines can sift through this corpus of information to answer any question on their own. This may work; who knows?

What I do know is that we ain’t there yet, that’s for sure. I’ve started using Facebook Questions, and it seems great for asking matters of breezy opinion like “Where should I go for the best Mexican food in Hicksville?” But on questions of fact it’s maddening for anyone who already knows how to use Google and is presumably doing some quick checking with it before asking the whole Facebook hivemind. A typical question goes like this:

Why does my copy of The Fussy Baby Book, by Dr. William Sears, say it’s a bad idea to feed a 10-month-old solid green peas?*

Answer 1: Because peas are bad for 10-month-olds.

Gee, thanks.

Answer 2: Do not feed your child peas at any age. All peas sold in the US are genetically modified and will EAT YOUR BABY’S SPLEEN. I do not care to elucidate the mechanism that causes this spleen-eating to happen.

Thank you for that piece of expertise. Now isn’t it time for your local city council meeting? I believe you were planning on protesting the arrival of a national big-box retailer there.

Answer 3: I dunno doesn’t seem like a good idea to me I mean I never ate peas when I was little and I turned out OK


Answer 4. Because William Sears is an author and putting words in books is what authors do.

Answer 5 is just a gaping hole, because by the time the asker scrolls down to answer 5 he’s already thrown a rock through his monitor.

The cure, I think, is targeting the questions finely enough so only an informed audience will see them. It’s kind of surprising that Facebook of all companies hasn’t caught on to this, as finding out people’s expertise and qualifications should be one of their great strengths.

*I have never read Dr. William Sears’s The Fussy Baby Book. Any claims I attribute to this work originate solely in my own laziness when it comes to thinking up a suitable fake parenting book title.

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