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The Quest for Meaning

The  world's  smartest  search  engine  took  250  years  to  build.

Autonomy is here.  

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By Steve Silberman

The past is never far away at the University of Cambridge. It can be as close as your morning toast, smeared with jam made for the Fellows at Christ's College each year from the fruit of a mulberry tree said to have been planted by John Milton.

Of course that's just a legend. The tree dates from decades before the author of Paradise Lost could have planted it, says Cambridge engineering professor Peter Rayner, holding forth in the garden behind a handsome edifice called the Masters' Lodge. I ask Rayner about the wing where we'll be having lunch, and I'm surprised when he advises me that it's new. "Oh, yes," he explains. "Darwin built it - large family, you know."

I've come to this medieval college town to learn more about the birthplace of another trace of the past that's bearing fruit in the present. A startup called Autonomy - one of the rising stars of UK high tech - is turning the obscure mathematical musings of 18th-century Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes into a powerful new breed of software.

Autonomy's founder, Michael Lynch, likes to say that he's aiming for Autonomy to become "the Oracle of unstructured data." His company is thriving at the intersection of two Net-driven trends: the push toward personalizing services and the explosion of information in text form. Autonomy is one of a number of companies specializing in knowledge management, an industry growing as fast as the Internet itself. Larry Hawes, an analyst for the consulting firm the Delphi Group, says that in 1996, the combined software-license revenue for programs specializing in information-management tasks like text search and retrieval was $48 million. By the end of this year, Hawes estimates, the figure will be $604 million.

The Web - which essentially pasted a text interface on the front end of the burgeoning global network - has proven fortuitous for language-centered companies like Autonomy. Many firms are beginning to realize that the most crucial intellectual property in an office or business isn't neatly compartmentalized data in spreadsheets or databases, it's writing - all that messy, untagged, uncategorized verbiage that sprouts up like kudzu wherever people bounce ideas off one another. By offering knowledge-management tools for organizing the daily avalanche of email, Word documents, news, memos, Web pages, PowerPoint presentations, Lotus Notes, and online product descriptions, Autonomy has attracted a client roster that includes many of the world's largest media organizations and manufacturers, including the Associated Press, News Corp., Procter & Gamble, Lucent Technologies, Merrill Lynch, and the US Department of Defense.

The mathematical processes behind Autonomy's methods are complex, but the promise itself is simple: to enable computers to extract meaning from text and to use that meaning to better categorize and deliver useful information. While computers have long been able to identify strings of keywords, anyone who's used a search engine can testify to its limits. What makes Autonomy's products different is an underlying pattern-recognition algorithm, derived from Bayes' formulations, which empowers computers to act as if they possessed abilities we think of as subtly and profoundly human: comprehending context, generalizing from words to an idea, even understanding the unspoken by grasping the root concepts beneath the play of syntax.

If you're an engineer at BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) and you begin typing a memo about airfoil design, a program built by Autonomy will open a second window on the desktop with links to relevant research in the company archives, as well as items from the morning news you should see. It will also display the names of any of your colleagues who have done work on the subject. Another piece of Autonomy software performs a related function for readers of the BBC World Service's online version, alerting them - with hyperlinks created on the fly - to news items germane to the stories they're reading. And the next time you fire off an angry blast to your ISP, you can thank Autonomy if the wording of the automated reply seems unusually pertinent.

Though most people in the US have probably never heard of Autonomy or products like ActiveKnowledge and Portal-in-a-Box, that's sure to change. The company's stock price has jumped 1,000 percent on the European Easdaq index since an IPO in July 1998. Now that Autonomy has achieved a $1 billion market cap, Michael Lynch thinks the time is right for a dual listing on Nasdaq. Many industry analysts feel that the company has brought its ideas to the table at just the right time. "When Autonomy first came to the United States," says Hadley Reynolds, director of research for the Delphi Group, "the whole text-search market was considered a washed-up, has-been area. Companies that had been in there for the long haul, like Verity, were drying up. Lynch recognized that the Internet was going to create a problem that his technology could make a big dent in solving."

Contributing editor Steve Silberman ( wrote about Myst's Robyn Miller in Robyn Miller in Wired 7.10.

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