Typing a question into a search engine and getting a specific, relevant answer hasn’t improved much since the 1957 librarian-favorite film Desk Set when EMMARAC (the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator) answered a question about Watusis and the island of Corfu with Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s poem Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight. Make it a subjective question, e.g., “What is the best Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto?,” and the results are even less helpful, as noted in a “Digital Domain” article by Randall Stross in today’s New York Times. The article, “Now All Your Friends Are in the Answer Business,” discusses “Aardvark . . . a Web service that answers users’ questions through their friends and friends-of-friends.”
Often at the reference desk I don’t answer a patron’s question but, instead, seek to find someone who can provide a good answer — I’m more a switchboard operator than fountain of knowledge. So Aardvark’s approach of using networks to make the connection between question and human-supplied answer is intriguing. As the article explains,
A new service offered by Aardvark (vark.com), however, provides specific recommendations. Its advice is always current, too, obtained on the fly from those we trust, like friends, but whose collective expertise far exceeds that of the relatively few people we happen to know personally.
Founded in 2007 and based in San Francisco, the company has just completed beta testing of its answer service and opened it to the public last week. It begins with the social network that you’ve established elsewhere. Presently, it requires Facebook; other networks will be added, it says.
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Aardvark may come to be preferred over answer databases and “decision engines” if many people want a speedy answer from a fellow human being.