AskWiki is a new partnership between AskMeNow and the Wikimedia Foundation, which integrates some of the semantic web and natural language features of AskMeNow into Wikipedia searches. The AskWiki engine is able to parse natural language statements and returns specific answers rather than just relevant articles.
Here’s a basic example of how this can be useful: say you want to know who won the Super Bowl this year, type just about any combination of “Super Bowl,” “Super Bowl winner 2007” etc into Wikipedia’s default search engine and you’ll get links to relevant articles. You can click through those links and find the info you want.
But with AskWiki, type in “who won the Super Bowl this year?” and you get back simply the answer: Indianapolis Colts. Change it up a little bit say, “who won the World Series last year?” and AskWiki returns: Pittsburgh Steelers. After the answer is a link to some relevant pages in Wikipedia for further reading if you want to click through.
But that’s just the point, you don’t need to click through to get the answer you wanted. Now on the desktop this is pretty cool, but on a mobile device, where bandwidth is limited and costly, this is critical. And that’s where AskWiki is headed.
In the mobile world, traditional search engines like Google and Yahoo are at a disadvantage since their model depends on offering multiple links and leaving it up to the user to sort our which one is the best answer. Mobile screens are small and user habits tend more toward a “get in and get out” approach, which AskWiki enables.
Earlier today I spoke with Grant Cohen of VP of Product Development at AskMeNow, who headed the development of AskWiki. Cohen says that the project evolved organically as a simple engineering challenge. “Wikipedia is a very difficult database to parse, it’s highly unstructured, user-generated, which means the writing style changes from entry to entry and the content is constantly updating.” Cohen says the AskMeNow engineers figured “if we can do this with Wikipedia we can do it pretty much anything, or that’s what we hope.”
Cohen concedes that AskWiki is not perfect, which is why it’s still in a beta testing phase. “it’s still new, still young,” says Cohen, but even so it’s fairly impressive.
And of course it wouldn’t be very Wikipedia-like if there wasn’t a way for you to contribute and improve the results in AskWiki.
Right now when you ask a question AskWiki provides a set of links to label an answer correct, incorrect or uncertain. And in the cases where the answer is incorrect or uncertain you can provide the correct answer, which is then fed back into the engine so the next person that comes along has a better chance of finding the answer to their question.
“It’s good right now but not good enough,” says Cohen. Hopefully sometime early next year AskWiki will shed it’s beta status and “once we get to that point a mobile portal will be built around it.”
That means many of the features in AskMeNow, such as the ability to send questions and get answers over SMS, will be available through AskWiki.
The promise of semantic web has been around pretty much since the start of the web and its history is littered with the carcasses of companies that thought they had the answer. Certainly AskWiki has its work cut out for it, but after playing around with it off and on for a few days, I’m actually quite impressed and when it goes mobile AskWiki will offer something not currently available — fast, simple, access to the vast knowledge of Wikipedia right at your fingertips.