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Metaphorical search engine looks for un-thought-of connections

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February 28, 2012

Search under 'emergency department' using YossarianLives!, and this is what you might get ...

Search under 'emergency department' using YossarianLives!, and this is what you might get (Photo: Jose Ma Izquierdo Galiot)

Conventional search engines are definitely something of a paradox - you use them to find out new information regarding a certain topic, yet the top hits that you receive mostly contain information that everyone already knows. Not only does this hinder peoples' efforts to think about things in new ways, but it can also reinforce mistruths and stereotypes. That's where YossarianLives! comes in. Named after the main character in the paradox-centered book Catch-22, it's a "metaphorical search engine" that's designed to generate new knowledge instead of reinforcing existing knowledge.

The team behind the project point to Google's autocomplete feature as an example of what's wrong with regular search engines. As soon as the algorithm is able to guess what you're searching for, it jumps in with suggestions that are based on many other peoples' asked-and-answered queries.

That works for people who simply want to know the official language of Bolivia, but it holds back the furniture designer who is trying to take a whole new approach to office chairs. As YossarianLives! co-founder J. Paul Neeley puts it, his search engine is designed "for anyone on the edges of their knowledge field, creating fresh perspectives that can lead to new kinds of understanding and innovation."

When a user of the system enters a search term, special algorithms return results that are not directly linked to that term, yet are still potentially metaphorically-related. Although the exact process is still being kept under wraps, it is known that the system does look for words that are used in conjunction with the search term - but not used too closely to it.

As an example, Neeley suggests that someone might be tasked with creating the emergency department of the future. If they searched under "emergency department" on Google, they could learn everything that there currently is to know about emergency departments. A search on YossarianLives!, however, would get them - among other things - a Formula 1 pit crew. That, in turn, could inspire them to incorporate the principles of a pit crew into a new, highly-efficient emergency department.

YossarianLives! is currently open to select early users, in order to generate feedback and get the bugs out of the system. A public launch, however, is expected shortly.

Source: YossarianLives! via New Scientist

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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