Channels ▼

Mark Nelson

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Brute Force vs. AI

August 26, 2010

One of the annoying things that old school Artificial Intelligence researchers have to deal with is the fact that simple brute force is such a daunting foe. Back in the dawn era of the field, attempts to replicate human thought processes used deductive reasoning, symbolic representation, and incremental learning to solve problems.

As an example, look at what the AI consensus might have been 30 years ago for championship chess programs, and compare it to the massive database searches used by Deep Blue to pummel human opponents. I think you'll find that things haven't worked out quite the way they were expected to.

The feeling of the hoi polloi, of course, is that Artificial Intelligence is dead, and that's probably the best thing that could happen to what is still a pretty exciting field. But it's quite a rarity for the public to get a hands-on look at exciting developments in AI.

Unfortunately, the public beta of the Swingly search engine is not going to be the exception to this rule.


Swingly is a search engine that purports to answer questions in plain English by searching the web. They give some examples which work quite well, such as:

  • How much money did Avatar make?
  • Who won the World Series in 2004?
  • Who killed Inigo's father?

Natural language queries are to AI what register optimization is to compilers - a fundamental problem that has been studied to death. As a result, I though maybe Swingly might have some interesting results to present here.

Of course, it is only fair to compare its results to those of Google, the brute force ghost at the banquet. I threw out a random selection of questions and examined the results, judging them only on whether or not they answered the question. My sample list included:

  • Who is the editor of Dr. Dobb's Journal?
  • Is same sex marriage legal in Texas?
  • How does Swingly work?
  • What books did Mark Nelson write?
  • How do I tie a half hitch?
  • what song has the lyrics "My loneliness is killing me?
I rated the test results as Good, Okay, or Bad. Google got 5 Goods and 1 Okay. Swingly got 2 Okays and 4 Bad - bad meaning that it totally missed the point.

Just as an example, the answer to the last question is "Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears. Google's first result was a video for that song - a clear win. Swingly's first result was a Wikipedia entry for a song called "Killing Me" by the Japanese rock band L'Arc-en-Ciel - fail.

So today at least, chalk one up for finely tuned brute force queries, and mark it a loss for natural language parsing.

P.S. Apologies for stepping on fellow blogger Jocelyn Paine's turf.

Related Reading

More Insights

Currently we allow the following HTML tags in comments:

Single tags

These tags can be used alone and don't need an ending tag.

<br> Defines a single line break

<hr> Defines a horizontal line

Matching tags

These require an ending tag - e.g. <i>italic text</i>

<a> Defines an anchor

<b> Defines bold text

<big> Defines big text

<blockquote> Defines a long quotation

<caption> Defines a table caption

<cite> Defines a citation

<code> Defines computer code text

<em> Defines emphasized text

<fieldset> Defines a border around elements in a form

<h1> This is heading 1

<h2> This is heading 2

<h3> This is heading 3

<h4> This is heading 4

<h5> This is heading 5

<h6> This is heading 6

<i> Defines italic text

<p> Defines a paragraph

<pre> Defines preformatted text

<q> Defines a short quotation

<samp> Defines sample computer code text

<small> Defines small text

<span> Defines a section in a document

<s> Defines strikethrough text

<strike> Defines strikethrough text

<strong> Defines strong text

<sub> Defines subscripted text

<sup> Defines superscripted text

<u> Defines underlined text

Dr. Dobb's encourages readers to engage in spirited, healthy debate, including taking us to task. However, Dr. Dobb's moderates all comments posted to our site, and reserves the right to modify or remove any content that it determines to be derogatory, offensive, inflammatory, vulgar, irrelevant/off-topic, racist or obvious marketing or spam. Dr. Dobb's further reserves the right to disable the profile of any commenter participating in said activities.

Disqus Tips To upload an avatar photo, first complete your Disqus profile. | View the list of supported HTML tags you can use to style comments. | Please read our commenting policy.