Microsoft: Taking Linguistics from the Academic Field to That of the Home Keyboard

By July 01, 2008

Software giant Microsoft (MSFT) announced it would purchase the year old company Powerset, a start-up using principals of linguistics in an attempt to make Internet keyword search easier. Though cell phones offer an “autotexting” function, one that finishes words begun by the writer, Powerset’s technology goes further. It takes a given word, breaking it down based on meaning, with the end of allowing users to type in inexact concepts that would, thesaurus-like, bring up the intended word(s). “Powerset has always been a small company with big dreams,” explained company product manager Mark Johnson in a Powerset blog post regarding the deal. He continued the post by saying the company has the ambitious “ultimate goal of changing the way humans interact with computers through


The ability to rely on a linguistically oriented, conceptual tool, known as a “semantic search,” has long interested, but escaped, researchers.

It grants the keyboard and computer an almost omniscient quality—seeming to guess at the writer’s thoughts and expressions based on a string of related ideas.

Were it to work, the typist would hold a sort of conversation with the computer as an elusive word would come as a response to a tip-of-the-tongue description.

Microsoft quelled rumors months in the brewing when Satya Nadella, senior vice-president of Microsoft’s Search, Portal, and Advertising business, issued a statement confirming the deal.

Though she said the desktop mammoth was buying the start-up, Nadella did not disclose financial terms and details.

Powerset has a team of several-dozen, including academics specializing in “natural language processing,” and it is, as the article describes, one of Microsoft’s many new “Web search acquisitions” this year.

Microsoft’s representatives said January it would be buying popular business-world-oriented Web search service and Norwegian company Fast Search & Transfer ASA for $1.2 billion.

Gates’ brain child may, as yet, be hindered in its pursuit for Yahoo!, but the new feather in its cap of Web search services, especially one aiding in text-completion and linguistic relation/prediction, will surely make Microsoft’s headdress more imposing.

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