Wednesday, March 19, 2008

semantic-hackker-logo.pngSemantic startups and projects are hot right now. (See Radar Networks, Freebase, Blue Organizer, Hakia, even Yahoo). But what do you do if you are a little-known technology company in Rochester, New York with a powerful semantic-analysis engine on your hands that you want to turn into new businesses?

You offer a $1 million prize to anyone who can come up with the most profitable application for your technology and call it the Semantic Hacker challenge. The challenge starts today, and is being sponsored by TextWise, a private company backed by pension-fund adviser Bill Manning that has been around since 1994. TextWise uses natural-language processing and semantic analysis to automatically categorize Web pages and create contextual ads for them. But it wants to see what the crowd can do with its technology. It is opening up its APIs, much like semantic search engine Hakia did yesterday. But instead of merely licensing the technology, which it is willing to do, it hopes to generate actual business ideas that it can run with. CEO Connie Kenneally explains how the challenge will work:

The winners of the challenges would turn over rights to their idea. We would award them $100,000 immediately, we would likely make them or their team job offers, and we would build out whatever is required. Then they would receive 50% of the first year’s revenues, up to $1 million.

Not a bad deal for simply coming up with a killer semantic application. Before somebody else takes it, my idea is a semantic search engine that actually works at Web scale (please send the check to my home address). Don’t worry. There can be more than one winner.

light-bulb.pngKenneally is hoping for specific suggestions to apply semantic analysis to different industries. Any idea is fair game, except for four works-in-progress TextWise is already developing: a browser plug-in that replaces ads with content related to the page you are on (foof), semantic bookmarks that bring up related content from the top 6,000 blogs on Technorati (Gyzork), a shopping discovery tool, and a Facebook app that automatically provides shareable links relevant to a given conversation (Festoon). That Gyzork idea is my favorite. Instead of saving bookmarks, you save concepts and the relevant links are added to the bookmark over time.

The way the technology works is that it creates “Semantic Signatures” from any text that is fed into the system. You put text in and it spits out categories it thinks the text fits under, as well as related Wikipedia articles. On the Semantic Hacker site you can try it out by cutting and pasting some text and seeing what it comes up with. For instance, I put in the text from a post I wrote about China blocking YouTube, and it generated a Semantic Signature with these categories:

Society/Issues/Territorial_Disputes/Tibet 68

…/Religion_and_Spirituality/Buddhism/Lineages/Tibetan/Dalai_Lama 48

Society/Religion_and_Spirituality/Falun_Dafa 22

Computers/Internet/Searching/Search_Engines/Google 17

Computers/Internet/Searching/Directories/Volunteer-Edited 17

That is pretty accurate. (The numbers weight the relevance of each category on a scale of 1 to 100). And it produced ten related Wikipedia articles about Tibet as well. “It is like decoding the DNA of the text—creating a semantic map of the text,” explains Kenneally. She says it can scale to hundreds of millions of Web pages, but for the challenge she is limiting applicants to 20,000 separate requests a day, and up to 100,000 characters per request. Unlike, say, the Netflix challenge to come up with a better recommendation engine, TextWise isn’t looking for someone to improve its algorithm, which it is keeping secret. It just wants to know what applications and markets to go after.

If you were going to build a semantic startup, what would it be?

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