Microsoft Adds Semantic Search to Azure Cognitive Search: Is That Fast?

April 9, 2021

Microsoft is adding new capabilities to its cloud-based enterprise search platform Azure Cognitive Search, we learn from “Microsoft Debuts AI-Based Semantic Search on Azure” at Datanami. We’re told the service offers improved development tools. There is also a “semantic caption” function that identifies and displays a document’s most relevant section. Reporter George Leopold writes:

“The new semantic search framework builds on Microsoft’s AI at Scale effort that addresses machine learning models and the infrastructure required to develop new AI applications. Semantic search is among them. The cognitive search engine is based on the BM25 algorithm, (as in ‘best match’), an industry standard for information retrieval via full-text, keyword-based searches. This week, Microsoft released semantic search features in public preview, including semantic ranking. The approach replaces traditional keyword-based retrieval and ranking frameworks with a ranking algorithm using deep neural networks. The algorithm prioritizes search results based on how ‘meaningful’ they are based on query relevance. Semantics-based ranking ‘is applied on top of the results returned by the BM25-based ranker,’ Luis Cabrera-Cordon, group program manager for Azure Cognitive Search, explained in a blog post. The resulting ‘semantic answers’ are generated using an AI model that extracts key passages from the most relevant documents, then ranks them as the sought-after answer to a query. A passage deemed by the model to be the most likely to answer a question is promoted as a semantic answer, according to Cabrera-Cordon.”

By Microsoft’s reckoning, the semantic search feature represents hundreds of development years and millions of dollars in compute time by the Bing search team. We’re told recent developments in transformer-based language models have also played a role, and that this framework is among the first to apply the approach to semantic search. There is one caveat—right now the only language the platform supports is US English. We’re told that others will be added “soon.” Readers who are interested in the public preview of the semantic search engine can register here.

Cynthia Murrell, April 9, 2021

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