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Semantics and Search Engines

2009/07/28

I’m doing some work on search engines and how semantically aware search engines can benefit people. This is an outgrowth of some work we did long ago and documented in a bunch of posts that are listed down below.

The challenge with search engines is that they only work if you know the terms that apply to what you’re looking for. There’s a great deal of money, a good many companies and lots of people who do nothing but figure out how to write things so that people with no knowledge of a field (or what they’re looking for) can find it.

The solution is to create a semantically aware search engine, one that recognizes that a “thinking machine” could be a “cognitive device” without requiring humans to figure it out ahead of time.

Solving the problem semantically involves teaching a machine the difference between homonymy (a type of linguistic relation between two words that are spelled the same way but differ in meaning) and polysemy (a form of lexical ambiguity of an individual word or phrase that can be used (in different contexts) to express two or more different meanings). Current mainstream computer technology handles neither disjoint meanings nor ambiguity well at all.

This brings us to the field of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. Words are signs and symbols of their meanings and that makes semantics, the study of language meaning, kind of a subset of semiotics. For example,

male :: Ain't he cute?

can be thought of as a semantic statement. The word “male” means neither me nor my picture, but the class “male” of which I’m a member.

Reverse it, though, and something quite different comes into play:

What does this image mean? :: ?

What is the meaning of the above image? Now we’re dealing with cultural, social, psychological and other filters that affect the meaning of the message. Semantic searches have to be very aware of who is doing the searching.

Wittgenstein wrote in “Tell me how you are searching, and I will tell you what you are searching for.” in Philosophical Investigations. As I responded in Wittgenstein on Search Engines, “Tell me how you are searching, and I will tell you what you will find.”

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