Monday, June 8, 2009

Baker's dozen: Powerset

[If you came here for a review of Powerset, you might also want to look into Wolfram Alpha]

Continuing the none-too-rigorous field test ...

When I first heard of Powerset, its big innovation seemed to be presenting not just raw results, but structured information in the form of "Factz". These were three-word sequences that were meant to summarize the information in an article. That was about a year ago. Since then, the Factz feature seems to have been toned down somewhat. The site itself looks slick, with various UI ameneties and a custom style sheet for displaying articles. For whatever that's worth.

Powerset claims to answer questions posed in plain English, but it limits its scope to Wikipedia. As we've seen, this is not necessarily a great limitation, as a fair number of questions can be answered perfectly well by producing the relevant Wikipedia article. Powerset now also provides links to Bing. It's not often you see a search engine advertised on TV, but Microsoft is currently running a well-produced campaign for it.

Since the PowerSet page links to Bing I'll have a look there, too. Between the two, there should be equivalent coverage to Google or Ask. This should be the first real test in this series of a search 2.0 engine with questions that, as far as I can tell, ought to be right in its wheelhouse. So here goes:
  • How much energy does the US consume?
The fourth snippet on the Powerset page gives the same figure cited elsewhere "100 quadrillion BTUs (105 exajoules, or 29000 TWh) in 2005". Bing seems to give largely the same list.
  • How many cell phones are there in Africa?
I'm not finding anything here. There's a button you can click on that brings up a pretty widget containing the Wikipedia page in question with a "relevant passage" highlighted. There's a button on that widget for navigating to the next relevant passage, but it doesn't seem to do anything. In any case, I didn't see any figure for cell phones in Africa. Clicking through to Bing again produced what looked to be the identical list, but (again) re-labeled as "Bing reference".
  • When is the next Cal-Stanford game?
As with the other engines, some hits on particular Big Games and some other random stuff, but nothing telling me when the next one is. Given that Bing once again seems to be just the same list, I'm not going to mention it any more unless it does something notably different from Powerset.
  • When is the next Cal game?
The main difference here is that Cal Ripken appears at the top of the list.
  • Who starred in 2001?
At the top of the Powerset results, but not the Bing results, is a row of posters from "Freebase" (Really? You called it "Freebase"? Really?) labeled "2001: A Space Odyssey (film) Performances" Several of them have actors' names below them. Not bad, though not quite as unmistakable as, say, an IMDB entry. The actual articles are roughly the same as for Google/Ask: mostly stars of films made in 2001.
  • Who starred in 2001: a Space Odyssey?
This ought to produce at least as good a result, and it does. Powerset gives a somewhat more concise set of posters and (along with Bing) a list of articles mostly relevant to the film. The top one mentions the names of the stars, not in a list, but buried in the text.
  • Who has covered "Ruby Tuesday"?
If Powerset is an index to Wikipedia, it had better find the article for this one, and it does. The second highlighted passage mentions a particular cover version. Again I can't navigate to it in the widget, but the widget also shows the table of contents of the article in a smaller pane to the right, with the "Cover versions" section prominently visible. Click on that and Bob's your uncle.
  • What kinds of trees give red fruit?
Not much different from previous tries, though several entries mention the "UCN Red List." I can, however, now add "red huckleberry" and "red pitaya" to the list of red fruit. Except that further reading and link-chasing reveals that huckleberries grow on bushes and pitayas are cactus fruit.
  • Who invented the hammock?
Along with the Wikipedia article everyone has found, Powerset brings up a "Factz" (missing in Bing, of course) stating that "Inhabitants Invented Hammock". OK, thankz.
  • Who played with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue?
As expected, the Wikipedia article on the album pops up. Neither happens to make the personnel section easily visible, but once you get to the article it's, well, much like clicking on a link to Wikipedia. But at that point it's not hard to find the answer.
  • How far is it from Bangor to Leeds?
Stuff on Bangor, Leeds, Gaelic football and such, but no readily apparent answer to the question. At least it doesn't try to foist that Field Notes thingie onto the world.
  • How far is it from Bangor to New York?
Similarly, nothing helpful. But guess what? There's a Bangor, New York. Interesting that Google maps chose Bangor Maine (which I expected) over Bangor, NY (which is closer, though not as much closer as one might think).
  • How far is it from Paris to Dallas?
I see: An article on the TV series Dallas, one on the film Paris, Texas, articles on the town of Paris, Arkansas, and on Texas State Highway 24, a list of technology centers ... isn't this exactly the kind of mindless hash that the new search engines are supposed to avoid?

All in all, less than impressive.

In one case (2001), Powerset delivers an answer for which Google and Ask require a more specific query. In one case (cell phones), it delivers nothing where the others delivered a clear link to the answer. In one case (red fruit) it is somewhat less useful than the others. On the distance questions, where plain text search gave at least some moderately helpful answers and Google maps did the serviceable job you'd expect, Powerset completely whiffed. Bing looks like slightly less of the same.

But the style sheets look nice.

Up next (after another brief interlude): Wolfram Alpha.


earl said...

huckleberries are more like, purple.

David Hull said...

I'm guessing "red huckleberries" are more like, red.

earl said...

Oh. Red huckleberries. I guess they would be.