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.