By Deane Barker on September 9, 2004

From factoids to facts: Microsoft is working on an “Answer Engine” that will answer common-language questions in 50 words or less using information it indexes from the Web. It’s currently called “Ask MSR,” for “Ask Microsoft Research.”

“When was Marilyn Monroe born?” Ask MSR starts by manipulating the question in various ways: by identifying the verb, for example, and then changing its tense or moving it into different positions in the sentence (“Marilyn was Monroe born”, “Marilyn Monroe was born” and so on). The resulting phrases are then fed into a search engine, and documents containing matching strings of words are retrieved.

So it essentially changes a question into a fragment of a declarative statement, then looks for pages that match that fragment in the hopes they’ll complete it.