An Online Encyclopedia That Writes Itself
They look a bit like communally written Wikipedia pages. But these articles—concise profiles of people and organizations, complete with lists of connected organizations, people, and events—were in fact written by computers, in a new bid by the Pentagon to build machines that can follow global news events and provide intelligence analysts with useful summaries in close to real time.
The prototype system is part of a nonpublic site built for intelligence agencies by Raytheon BBN in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and scheduled for delivery to the government later this year. It gathers information from 40 news websites written in English, Chinese, and Arabic, and eventually it will cover hundreds of news sites in all major languages. Ultimately the system will be linked with an existing TV broadcast monitoring network.
On the new site, if you search for information on the Nigerian jihadist movement Boko Haram, you get this entirely computer-generated summary: “Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram is led by Ibrahim Abubakar Shekau. (Former leaders include Mohammed Yusuf.) It has headquarters in Maiduguri. It has been described as ‘a new radical fundamentalist sect,’ ‘the main anchor for mayhem in the state,’ ‘a fractured sect with no clear structure,’ and ‘the misguided extremist sect.’ “
To be sure, Wikipedia’s Boko Haram entry is clearer. But the BBN system captures everything that appears on news sites—not just on topics people chose to write Wikipedia pages about—and constantly and automatically adds information, says Sean Colbath, a senior scientist at BBN Technologies who demonstrated the technology. “I could go and read 200 articles to learn about Bashar Al-Assad (the Syrian dictator). But I’d like to have a machine tell me about it,” says Colbath. (The system, by the way, picks up the fact that the brutal Al-Assad is also a licensed ophthalmologist.)