Start-Up Aims for Database to Automate Web Searching

[ Thu. Mar. 8. 2007 ]

SAN FRANCISCO, March 8 — A new company founded by a longtime technologist is setting out to create a vast public database intended to be read by computers rather than people, paving the way for a more automated Internet in which machines will routinely share information.

The company, Metaweb Technologies, is led by Danny Hillis, whose background includes a stint at Walt Disney Imagineering and who has long championed the idea of intelligent machines.

He says his latest effort, to be announced Friday, will help develop a realm frequently described as the “semantic Web” — a set of services that will give rise to software agents that automate many functions now performed manually in front of a Web browser.

The idea of a centralized database storing all of the world’s digital information is a fundamental shift away from today’s World Wide Web, which is akin to a library of linked digital documents stored separately on millions of computers where search engines serve as the equivalent of a card catalog.

In contrast, Mr. Hillis envisions a centralized repository that is more like a digital almanac. The new system can be extended freely by those wishing to share their information widely.

On the Web, there are few rules governing how information should be organized. But in the Metaweb database, to be named Freebase, information will be structured to make it possible for software programs to discern relationships and even meaning.

For example, an entry for California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would be entered as a topic that would include a variety of attributes or “views” describing him as an actor, athlete and politician — listing them in a highly structured way in the database.

That would make it possible for programmers and Web developers to write programs allowing Internet users to pose queries that might produce a simple, useful answer rather than a long list of documents.

Since it could offer an understanding of relationships like geographic location and occupational specialties, Freebase might be able to field a query about a child-friendly dentist within 10 miles of one’s home and yield a single result.

The system will also make it possible to transform the way electronic devices communicate with one another, Mr. Hillis said. An Internet-enabled remote control could reconfigure itself automatically to be compatible with a new television set by tapping into data from Freebase. Or the video recorder of the future might stop blinking and program itself without confounding its owner.

In its ambitions, Freebase has some similarities to Google — which has asserted that its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. But its approach sets it apart.

“As wonderful as Google is, there is still much to do,” said Esther Dyson, a computer and Internet industry analyst and investor at EDventure, based in New York.

Most search engines are about algorithms and statistics without structure, while databases have been solely about structure until now, she said.

“In the middle there is something that represents things as they are,” she said. “Something that captures the relationships between things.”

That addition has long been a vision of researchers in artificial intelligence. The Freebase system will offer a set of controls that will allow both programmers and Web designers to extract information easily from the system.

“It’s like a system for building the synapses for the global brain,” said Tim O’Reilly, chief executive of O’Reilly Media, a technology publishing firm based in Sebastopol, Calif.

Mr. Hillis received his Ph.D. in computer science while studying artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1985 he founded one of the first companies focused on massively parallel computing, Thinking Machines. When the company failed commercially at the end of the cold war, he became vice president for research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering. More recently he was a founder of Applied Minds, a research and consulting firm based in Glendale, Calif. Metaweb, founded in 2005 with venture capital backing, is a spinoff of that company.

Mr. Hillis first described his idea for creating a knowledge web he called Aristotle in a paper in 2000. But he said he did not try to build the system until he had recruited two technical experts as co-founders. Robert Cook, an expert in parallel computing and database design, is Metaweb’s executive vice president for product development. John Giannandrea, formerly chief technologist at Tellme Networks and chief technologist of the Web browser group at Netscape/AOL, is the company’s chief technology officer.

“We’re trying to create the world’s database, with all of the world’s information,” Mr. Hillis said.

All of the information in Freebase will be available under a license that makes it freely shareable, Mr. Hillis said. In the future, he said, the company plans to create a business by organizing proprietary information in a similar fashion.

Contributions already added into the Freebase system include descriptive information about four million songs from Musicbrainz, a user-maintained database; details on 100,000 restaurants supplied by Chemoz; extensive information from Wikipedia; and census data and location information.

A number of private companies, including Encyclopaedia Britannica, have indicated that they are willing to add some of their existing databases to the system, Mr. Hillis said.