The Answer Machine

The Answer Machine

By Susan Feldman

Series: Synthesis Lectures on Information Concepts, Retrieval, and Services Series Editor: Gary Marchionini, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Abstract: The Answer Machine is a practical, non-technical guide to the technologies behind information seeking and analysis. It introduces search and content analytics to software buyers, knowledge man- agers, and searchers who want to understand and design effective online environments. The book describes how search evolved from an expert-only to an end user tool. It provides an overview of search engines, categorization and clustering, natural language processing, content analytics, and visualization technologies. Detailed profiles for Web search, eCommerce search, eDiscovery, and enterprise search contrast the types of users, uses, tasks, technologies, and interaction designs for each. These variables shape each application, although the underlying technologies are the same. Types of information tasks and the trade-offs between precision and recall, time, volume and precision, and privacy vs. personalization are discussed within this context.

The book examines trends toward convenient, context-aware computing, big data and analytics technologies, conversational systems, and answer machines.The Answer Machine explores IBM Watson’s DeepQA technology and describes how it is used to answer health care and Jeopardy questions. The book concludes by discussing the implications of these advances: how they will change the way we run our businesses, practice medicine, govern, or conduct our lives in the digital age.

Table of Contents: Introduction / The Query Process and Barriers to Finding Information Online / Online Search: An Evolution / Search and Discovery Technologies: An Overview / Information Access: A Spectrum of Needs and Uses / Future Tense: The Next Era in Information Access and Discovery / Answer Machines

Print and electronic (PDF) copies of The Answer Machine are available through Morgan & Claypool. Institutions may contact them for a review copy.

Print copies are available through

Excerpt, Chapter 6:


The first section of this book examined the role of information in human interactions. In the second section, we explored the development of various technologies that help people tame the world of digital information in order to make it more manageable. But the technologies we discussed are not so easy to use, and they are a poor fit for the easy, intuitive exchange of information that is natural to humans. In this final section, we look beyond these current technologies to consider those that are just arriving. How will these newer technologies compare to those we have now? How will they shape our information interactions, as they take the stage over the next five to ten years? Emerging technologies will offer better options for managing and exchanging information. Although they will be embedded in practically any software that requires human interaction, they will be invisible to the user, facilitating more seamless, human-like information interactions that are well integrated into daily tasks such as information gathering, analysis, decision making, and communication. It is difficult to predict what the landscape will look like in a decade. Although we have come a long way, advanced information access technologies are still in the technology-centric phase. Just as early automobile aficionados failed to see that the glory of the car was not its technology, but its ability to get from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss or technical knowledge, we are only beginning to shift our attention from technology to purpose. However, it is clear that the IT industry is being pushed—by increasingly vast volumes of information, globalized commerce, the governmental drive for better intelligence, and an ever-faster pace of business—to develop new types of information applications to cope with today’s complex information challenges. These innovative applications will deliver more powerful digital environments that fit comfortably with the way we want to work. Five trends have emerged that act as catalysts to the development of new types of information applications. These are:

1. Probabilistic computing

2. Learning systems

3. Big data and analytics

4. Complex highly integrated information platforms

5. Improved information interaction: contextual awareness and conversational systems

Each of these trends requires some discussion because, together, they shape how we will interact with and use information systems.

© Morgan & Claypool 2012;


Review by I. Steiner, Editor, EcommerceBytes

Sue Feldman has done the impossible – explain search so that anyone can understand it. As our computers, phones and appliances get “smarter,” making them understand what we want and designing them to bring back relevant information becomes ever more important. Everyone in the search and technology field should read this book, as well as anyone who is curious about how technology like IBM’s Watson works and the challenges that lie ahead.

Review by David Schubmehl, International Data Corporation

Susan Feldman has written a quick paced and entertaining overview of technologies that either are or will be affecting all of us every day. The book starts off with a history of search and information access and quickly moves into a discussion of the technologies and systems ranging from tools like Yahoo and Google to natural language processing and text analysis systems. Ms. Feldman presents these concepts and technologies in an easy to read manner and liberally uses examples to get her points across.

Importantly, Ms. Feldman discusses the next generation of systems that she calls “Answer Machines” and does a great job of explaining how these work by introducing us to IBM’s Watson system which won the Jeopardy challenge. Since Watson is now branching out into other domains, like helping doctors to fight cancer, it is important that we understand what Answer Machines like Watson are and are not. Ms Feldman does a great job of providing that in this book.

I highly recommend the “Answer Machine” for all of the folks involved in search, SEO and everyone else who want to understand how computer search systems and “virtual assistants” are going to transform our lives over the next 10-20 years.

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