Powerset bought by Microsoft

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Powerset is a search engine that allows users to express their queries as phrases, rather than a few keywords.  It uses natural language processing (NLP) technologies to analyze the verb-argument structure of a query and deliver more focused search results, initially just from Wikipedia.  Powerset has attracted interest from the NLP community, as its services promise to demonstrate the value of NLP – and of language analysis more generally – in extracting information from the trillion or more words of text on the web.  On Tuesday, Microsoft announced it has acquired Powerset, and that Powerset will become part of Microsoft's Search Relevance team.  I hope this takeover means that natural language search will become mainstream, scaled up to the entire web, and used far more widely than before [Powerset blog|Microsoft Live Search blog].


  1. Stuart Robinson said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

    I wondered whether this would hit Language Log, and sure enough it did. I work at Powerset, in the natural language group, and we're pretty excited about the prospect of taking our technology and scaling it up to the entire web. With Microsoft's resources, this should rapidly become a reality.

  2. John Lawler said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

    Hey, if it gets 256 news articles already, it's likely to make it lots of places.

    On a different note, how does the software distinguish fact from fancy on Wikipedia?

  3. Livia Polanyi said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 1:43 am

    Hi John-

    I work at Powerset, too. And the answer to your question is "we don't" but remember, we are a search engine not a Q/A system. In many cases, a fanciful answer may still be relevant even if not true.

  4. Alan said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 6:46 am

    This gives me confidence that my studies in semantics might actually amount to a vocational career. Now I just need to do an IT degree …

  5. Theo Vosse said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 8:07 am

    Last time I checked, PowerSet did no do great (and I've written a commercial NLP Q&A system). It provides answers to non-sensical questions, and gives useless answers to imprecise questions, without any indication that the user might not be expecting this answers. Scaling it up to the "entire web" is going to be probematic, to say the least.

    It looks as if Microsoft is clutching at straws. What happened to their own NLP group anyway?

  6. Stuart Robinson said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    Theo, if you want to know more about the Powerset acquisition and how it fits into Microsoft's ambitions for natural language search, you might be interested in this interview with Barney Pell and Ramez Naam from TechCrunch.

  7. MikeA said,

    July 3, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    Just so long the resulting search-site is not IE-6 only.

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