Magazine article Information Today

When Keywords Fail, Will Predictive Search Deliver?

Magazine article Information Today

When Keywords Fail, Will Predictive Search Deliver?

Article excerpt

Nearly 9 years ago, the film Minority Report attracted both science--fiction buffs and Tom Cruise fans. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) description of the movie reminded me that the film focused on a future in which "criminals are caught before the crimes they commit, but one of the officers in the special unit is accused of one such crime and sets out to prove his innocence."

In 2002, the technologies showcased in this big--budget movie were being used at various research institutions and in some specialized applications. The barrier to wider use of novelties, such as large touchscreens and computationally hungry numerical recipes, was cost.

Today, touchscreen technology is available in mobile phones, cardswipe machines, and automobile onboard navigation systems. With an iPod nano, I can sport a touchscreen watch with a physical fitness application, an FM radio, and portable music player functions.

Computers and their bits and pieces have moved forward at a comparable, maybe even quicker, pace. My laptop computer, which weighs less than 2 lbs., features a dual--core CPU, multiple gigabytes of RAM, and a solid--state storage device.

You don't have to be a futurist to predict that the tech gear in Minority Report will become part of our digital environment. But the film downplayed one important facet of the future: The software delivers more intuitive functions, and, if anything, the sticking brake on the Bugatti Veyron is hardware, not software.

But will the future depicted in Minority Report become reality? Films may capture the broad features of daily life, even a world as depressing as the one conceived by Philip K. Dick's 1956 short story and made memorable with Cruise's portrayal of Chief John Anderton. However, this world of precrime was foreshadowed about a half century ago when cars had fins and averaged 8 miles per gallon.

In another sense, the future of the prescient short story is arriving piece by piece and function by function today, tomorrow, and the next day. In other words, minivideo cameras, the flood of social and mobile data, and the ineffectiveness of manual methods of information processing are all fueling a shift from keyword queries to predictive modeling.

Government Investments

The U.S. government's investment arm is called In--Q--Tel ( For a look at some of the organization's investments, visit http://,, or the In--Q--Tel website. In 2010, In--Q Tel invested in a little--known company called Recorded Future, Inc. However, what put the company in the headlines was a second investment from Google Ventures. As with mixing Mentos and Diet Coke, the visibility of Recorded Future ( exploded.

Christopher Ahlberg is the founder of Recorded Future, which has its headquarters in the Boston area. He was also one of the founders of Spotfire, a visualization and analytics tool that was acquired by TIBCO Software, Inc., a provider of infrastructure, software, and services to the financial services industry and other data--centric market sectors. Spotfire handles structured data; Recorded Future tackles the challenge of unstructured data. Examples of unstructured data choke my hard drives in the form of email, web-pages, Adobe PDF files or reports, and other information that lacks the rigid structure of a database table of financial information.


"I've always had a keen interest in data analysis and visualization," says Ahlberg. "Even back in 1993 as part of my PhD, I worked on what was called the FilmFinder, which took large amounts of textually oriented data (what's now IMDb) and allowed you to explore that data in a visual manner. ... It struck me that if we could turn textual information into temporal events (through clever linguistics), we could organize data for analysis." He thought that if he actually built the whole stack as a service for people, he could do this in an attractive fashion while solving some difficult information problems for people. …

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