In these waning days of Search, everyone has these options:
1) You, a human, send a query to a search engine, e.g. Google or Bing, and evaluate the answer(s).
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2a) A human looks up the answer and sends it back to you, usually via text to your phone.
2b) Their machine already knows the answer and sends it back to you.
3) A machine asks a machine a question and gets an answer, e.g. a Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA) like Siri.
4) A machine asks a human a question and returns the answer to you. See also: The Turing Test, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, or Lost in Space (the TV show).
The rest of this post is about number 2) You ask a human a question and a) a human answers you, or b) their machine answers you.
First, we need a question. I’ll use a fairly easy one: “Why would people order absinthe by asking for “un billet” (English: a ticket)?
The answer: Absinthe was said to drive people mad. It became popular to order absinthe under the nickname ‘un billet’ or ‘un train direct’ from the phrase ‘train direct á Charenton’ : a fast route to the madhouse.
ChaCha has a website that you can use at ChaCha.com, or you can call 1-800-2Cha-Cha which is 1-800-224-2242. A guide at the other end will either answer the question, or just hit ‘send’ if their machine already knows the answer. Either way you get a free answer, via text if you called it in.
I got this message, “SORRY, WE DON’T HAVE ANY ANSWERS FOR ‘WHY WOULD PEOPLE ORDER ABSINTHE BY ASKING FOR “UN BILLET.”‘ Bummer. I also tried to call ChaCha, but they do not support my cell phone carrier. Perhaps you can try ChaCha and then leave a comment.
A very similar service is kgb, except that they charge 99 cents per question. I asked the same question of a kgb “special agent” on their web site and I’m waiting for the answer now…you can also text your question(s) to 542 542 (kgb kgb).
JUST IN: kgb answers, “Absinthe was considered “a ticket” to the insane asylum in the early 1900s.” Perfect! Of course I could have probably found the answer myself, but not in every situation.
Then there is the one that is in development, PeerPong. You can go to the site and sign up to be notified when it is ready. It will also be staffed by human experts. Sign up today!
THE KEY THING IS that for each of these services, you are connected with an expert in the field pertaining to your question. We have not even discussed situations where you ask regular people, except to say that the “Wisdom of the Crowds,” approach fails terribly when the Crowd is, um, mixed. See also: Yahoo! Answers at http://answers.yahoo.com
The bottom line:
If you want information from a website, let your Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA), e.g. Siri get it for you.
If you want information from another human, try one of the services just covered.
If you want your VPA to get information from a human, I would wait a few years.
The Turing test has not been won yet, but oh what a day that will be!
To converse with a machine EXACTLY like you can with a person is the Holy Grail of technology, and developers are getting closer every day.