Semantic: Scholar and Search

September 1, 2021

The new three musketeers could be named Semantic, Scholar, and Search. What’s missing is a digital d’Artagnan. What are three valiant mousquetaires up to? Fixing search for scholarly information.

To learn why smart software goes off the rails, navigate to “Building a Better Search Engine for Semantic Scholar.” The essay documents how a group of guardsmen fixed up search which is sort of intelligent and sort of sensitive to language ambiguities like “cell”: A biological cell or “cell” in wireless call admission control. Yep, English and other languages require context to figure out what someone might be trying to say. Less tricky for bounded domains, but quite interesting for essay writing or tweets.

Please, read the article because it makes clear some of the manual interventions required to make search deliver objective, on point results. The essay is important because it talks about issues most search and retrieval “experts” prefer to keep under their kepis. Imagine what one can do with the knobs and dials in this system to generate non-objective and off point results. That would be exciting in certain scholarly fields I think.

Here are some quotes which suggest that Fancy Dan algorithmic shortcuts like those enabled by Snorkel-type solutions; for example:

Quote A

The best-trained model still makes some bizarre mistakes, and posthoc correction is needed to fix them.

Meaning: Expensive human and maybe machine processes are needed to get the model outputs back into the realm of mostly accurate.

Quote B

Here’s another:

Machine learning wisdom 101 says that “the more data the better,” but this is an oversimplification. The data has to be relevant, and it’s helpful to remove irrelevant data. We ended up needing to remove about one-third of our data that didn’t satisfy a heuristic “does it make sense” filter.

Meaning: Rough sets may be cheaper to produce but may be more expensive in the long run. Why? The outputs are just wonky, at odds with what an expert in a field knows, or just plain wrong. Does this make you curious about black box smart software? If not, it should.

Quote C

And what about this statement:

The model learned that recent papers are better than older papers, even though there was no monotonicity constraint on this feature (the only feature without such a constraint). Academic search users like recent papers, as one might expect!

Meaning: The three musketeers like their information new, fresh, and crunchy. From my point of view, this is a great reason to delete the backfiles. Even thought “old” papers may contain high value information, the new breed wants recent papers. Give ‘em what they want and save money on storage and other computational processes.

Net Net

My hunch is that many people think that search is solved. What’s the big deal? Everything is available on the Web. Free Web search is great. But commercial search systems like LexisNexis and Compendex with for fee content are chugging along.

A free and open source approach is a good concept. The trajectory of innovation points to a need for continued research and innovation. The three musketeers might find themselves replaced with a more efficient and unmanageable force like smart software trained by the Légion étrangère drunk on digital pastis.

Stephen E Arnold, September 1, 2021


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