Ask Jeeves – about MS and MIT patents…

Ot you could ask Maxwell. Or not.

If you go to Microsoft's "Ask Maxwell" Web page and ask: "Do you by any chance know a chap called Jeeves?" you get the response "I know the answer to this question: click the 'ask' button next to it." Clever, you may think, until you discover that Netscape Navigator elicits the answer "(Carrier Detect) CD" while IE gives "Challenge Handshake Authentication Protocol (CHAP)" It seems that these allegedly intelligent agents are not so intelligent after all, and that Maxwell is a man with an attitude to where questioners are coming from. Microsoft uses Ask Jeeves' corporate question answering service, which is apparently confined to Windows 98 at present although the Web page does not indicate this. But there's another issue looming: Microsoft ("we must be allowed to innovate") could find itself the object of an unwanted legal action, since Ask Jeeves is being sued by two MIT academics, Patrick Winston and Boris Katz, who have filed suit in the Boston District Court alleging that Ask Jeeves has infringed two of their patents. The company claims its technology was developed in-house, and says that the suit is without merit. It is also licensed to AltaVista, now majority owned by CMGI, but it looks as though AltaVista doesn't fear any legal action as it filed its $300 million IP with the SEC on Friday. Microsoft is also thought able to bear the financial burden of another legal action. One of the patents at issue is US5404295: Method and apparatus for utilising annotations to facilitate computer retrieval of database material. It's hard to see what is patentable from the abstract, so maybe the academic duo will find the validity of their patent being questioned by the US Patent and Trademark Office at the request of CMGI and Microsoft: "A method and apparatus for computer retrieval of database material which may be text, computer programs, graphics, audio, object classes, action specifications or other material which may be machine stored. Annotations are provided for at least selected database subdivisions, preferably with natural language questions, assertions or noun phrases or some combination/collection thereof. However, the annotations may also initially be generated in a structured form. Annotations are, if required, converted to a structured form and are stored in that form along with connections to corresponding subdivisions. Searching for relevant subdivisions involves entering a query in natural language or structured form, converting natural language queries to structured form, matching the structured form query against stored annotations and retrieving database subdivisions connected to matched annotations. The annotation process may be aided by utilising various techniques for automatically or semi-automatically generating the annotations." So if you bung some text into a database, assign some index terms, then parse the text, index terms and questions, shove the results into some search engines, and then show any correlations, watch out for communications from Winston and Katz's lawyer, Robert Birnbaum. The academic duo work in artificial intelligence at MIT, but who provides the funds for their salaries you may ask? We didn't chance this one to Jeeves or Maxwell, but did note that Microsoft announced in October that it was investing $25 million in I-Campus, a collaboration with MIT to develop educational technologies (and unkindly dubbed MSMIT, which is believed to be an allusion to the Microsoft NBC collaboration). So far as patents are concerned, there is of course an agreement whereby Microsoft either gets a royalty-free licence or owns the patent, depending on whether the work was done at MIT or Redmond. So is this all embarrassing? Perhaps it would be best to ask Jeeves, or Maxwell. Or perhaps not, on second thoughts. ®

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