Sunday, May 13, 2012

The First Search Engine

(Excerpt from Machinamenta)

The idea of punched cards for storing data was taken up by a Russian inventor, Semyon Korsakov, in 1832. Korsakov worked in the police ministry and kept extensive records on the populace. He devised a way of recording data by means of holes punched in cards. If two cards shared many of the same holes, it meant that the data they contained was similar. This fact could be used for creating a kind of search engine, where a plate with pins would rapidly scan across hundreds of records, only falling in and stopping when the pins could fall through all of the holes, indicating an exact match. Korsakov was excited about his ideas, and thought that they could be used to enhance human intelligence in the same way that the microscope and telescope had been used to enhance human sight. He wrote,

"machines intellectuelles would limitlessly strengthen the power of our thought, as soon as distinguished scientists apply their knowledge to studying the principles of this process and compose the tables necessary for its application in various fields of human knowledge." 

His designs for the ideoscope and homeoscope were released to the world (open source fashion) rather than patenting them to encourage their widespread use and further development. Unfortunately the Russian Academy of Science didn’t see the potential and little resulted from the inventions. He is today better remembered by the homeopathic medicine community for his remedies, than by the information science community for his ingenious method of searching through the database of those remedies.

For more about him, check out the Wikipedia article (and also the references at the end of the article):

I like this because it is basically the original version of Google. We don't think of search engines as AI, usually, but they really are automating, in a spectacular way, something that was only possible before through human intellectual effort. Like topics in philosophy, once something is solved we no longer call it artificial intelligence.

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