Google Goes Semantic… Finally!

Why do we learn? In his book Human Motivation Robert E. Franken, Professor Emeritus at the University of Calgary, defines motivation as “the arousal, direction and persistence of behaviour.”  Consider Franken’s definition – we get aroused, we work with a sense of direction, and we persist – we keep doing things, as we learn them.  For Psychiatrist John Birtchnell  “Curiosity is a major precursor to mental creativity. It is an extension of the more fundamental drive of exploration. It is more that just wanting to get somewhere, it is concerned with discovering how and why things happen.”  (The Two of Me: The Rational Outer Me and the Emotional Inner Me, p. 183)  Curiosity and motivation (arousal, direction and persistence) are also at the very core of our questioning process. We keep asking ‘why‘ until our curiosity is satisfied and our motivation loses momentum. Questioning and questions make the Edge Foundation tick. For 20 years now the Edge Foundation has been aiming to “promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues” and in doing so, to foster a “third culture”, consisting of “those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”  (I ToingToing!ed The Edge before.)

Once a year, the Edge Foundation editor poses a question – which is directed at a group of scientists under the intriguing strapline “I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?”  The 2002 Edge Question was: “what is your question? … Why?”   99 responses were documented on the foundation’s website, some of my favourite ones are: 

  • What is the missing ingredient – not genes, not upbringing – that shapes the mind? (Steven Pinker, research psychologist)
  • Can wealth be distributed? (John Markoff covers the computer industry and technology for The New York)
  • How are moral assertions connected with the world of facts? (David Deutsch, Oxford University)
  • Why do we fear the wrong things? (David G. Myers, social psychologist at Hope College)
  • Why do we tell stories? (Douglas Rushkoff, Professor of Media Culture at New York University’s) 

But the question that really caught my attention – in relation to the piece you are reading now – was: Why do we ask questions? (Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.) She says:

“We all take for granted the fact that human beings ask questions and seek explanations, and that the questions they ask go far beyond their immediate practical concerns. But this insatiable human curiosity is actually quite puzzling. No other animal devotes as much time, energy and brain area to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Why?  

Gopnik follows on with further questions – for example, why adults’ “quest for explanatory truth so often seems to be satisfied by the falsehoods of superstition and religion? […]  Why does this intrinsic truth-seeking drive seem to vanish so dramatically when children get to school? And, most important, how is it possible for children to get the right answers to so many questions so quickly? What are the mechanisms that allow human children to be the best learners in the known universe?” 

The last two questions – how to get the right answers to multiple questions quickly and how to become superior learners, may be addressed powerfully – even aggressively – by Google 3.0.  I got wind of the latest Google development through an entry from Baader Szabolcs, head of the Interactive Division at HPS Interactive and fellow member of the Linkedin Digital Media Technologies Group.  Baader lives and works in Budapest, Hungarian capital and socio-cultural hub for centuries.  Szabolcs quoted stories claiming that Google is (or has been) developing Semantic search capabilities. The universe of knowledge that is mined through Semantic search is known as the Semantic Web. A paper discussing Semantic Search offers “several salient aspects of the Semantic Web that are important to Semantic Search”, these are

  • The Semantic Web is not a Web of documents, but a Web of relations between resources denoting real world objects, i.e., objects such as people, places and events.
  • When considering machine readable information, one needs to remember that an object that is described digitally (say, a person named John Smith) is not the person himself, but ‘rich machine readable information’ about that person. The actual person ‘comes to life’ through the use of technology – such as a browser.’
  • The Semantic Web is an extension of the current Web, in that it includes both relationships as well as the Web’s ‘nodes’ – each object is surrounded by the various relationships s/he has, s/he obtains, owns and develops.
  • “Another important aspect of the Semantic Web is that different sites may contribute data about a particular resource”.  

Now, one needs to note that Google has been ignoring Semantic search for 4 years, before Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt conceded that changes are afoot: “Wouldn’t it be nice,” Schmidt said, “if Google understood the meaning of your phrase, rather than just the words that are in the phrase? We have made a lot of discoveries in that area that are going to roll out.”  

If Google is really facing a conceptual shift, allowing it to serve information in terms of their semantic relationships, instead of simply their relevance in terms of occurrence and the number of times specific keywords were selected as the correct result to particular queries, than Alison Gopnik’s two questions (“how is it possible for children to get the right answers to so many questions so quickly? What are the mechanisms that allow human children to be the best learners in the known universe?”) may be answered effectively in the very near future. 

Contribute to ToingToing!