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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Daily Report: For Search, Facebook Had to Go Beyond \'Robospeak\'

In The New York Times on Tuesday, Somini Sengupta reports on the eclectic team that Facebook assembled to create its search tool to help users find answers to many kinds of questions.

The team included two linguists, a Ph.D. in psychology and statisticians, along with the usual cadre of programmers. Their mission was ambitious but clear: teach Facebook’s computers how to communicate better with people.

Kathryn Hymes, 25, who left a master’s program in linguistics at Stanford to join the team in late 2011, told The Times that the goal was to create “this natural, intuitive language.” She was joined last March by Amy Campbell, who earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley.

When the team began its work, Facebook’s largely ineffective search engine understood only “robospeak,” as Ms. Hymes put it, and not hw people actually talk. The machine had to be taught the building blocks of questions, a bit like the way schoolchildren are taught to diagram a sentence. The code had to be restructured altogether.

Loren Cheng, 39, who led what is known as the natural language processing part of the project, said the search engine had to adjust to the demands of users, a great variety of them, considering Facebook’s mass appeal.

The project represents how Facebook builds products. It studies human behavior. It tests its ideas. The ultimate goal: to draw more people to the site and keep them there longer.