Always New Mistakes

November 21, 2007

Powerlabs: An insight into Powerset’s technology

Filed under: Business, Natural Language Processing — Tags: , , , — Alex Barrera @ 7:42 pm

Finally I received my invitation for the Powerset’s Powerlabs website. I’ve been playing with it for a couple of weeks now and I’m quite impress with some of the things they’ve accomplished. Powerlabs is an invitation only community for beta testers, built around five demos (they just added a new one yesterday). Their main goal is to show Powerset’s technology (via the demos), and to discuss problems, questions or ideas related to either the technology or the web interface.

The web site has five main sections: Dashboard (like you home page), Demos, Discussions, Queries (wished-for queries by other members) and People (list and ranking of current members). You can basically break the website in two big sections, the demos and the discussion area (more on this later).

This section is the user’s homepage for Powerlabs. As you can see on the screenshot, here you can monitor your stats within the community (nยบ of discussions, nยบ of comments, global rank based on karma points, etc.), Powerlabs latest news (“New Sports Demo” right now), a list of recently implemented ideas (with a link to the post where the idea was made and the author) and your news feed. The news feed is probably one of the best parts of Powerlabs. It’s quite similar to the one you find in Facebook and it basically keeps you updated with the latest activities related to your user and you summited ideas.


This is one of the most important areas of the website. Here you can play with five demos that show you Powerset’s technology at work. I stress the word technology, because you won’t find a Natural Language Search demo here. So it’s not a demo of the product, it’s a demo of the algorithms they are using to build the product. The demos have two big restrictions, they use predefined queries (you are just able to fill some words of a longer phrase) and they only work with the Wikipedia corpus (hopefully it seems they are trying to expand the corpus in a very near future). The demos are divided in several categories: sports, the arts, business, quotes and PowerMouse. The first four are the same demo, the only difference is on the queries you can ask.

sport demo1

For example, for the sports demo you can ask some of the following questions:

  • What did X win?
  • What did X draft?
  • Who X (defeated or beat) X?

For the business demo, you can ask things like:

  • What does X own?
  • Who did X acquire?

sports demo 2

The PowerMouse demo is probably the most fun to play with, it lets “you examine how structured information is extracted from open text“. As they say, it’s not a search application per se, but it’s a window into how the results are obtained. When you start the demo you are asked to fill the following structure: Something (subject) – Connection (verb) – Something (object). There are no restrictions on what three words to use. This demo will give you all the possible combinations of your query. When it can’t find the exact query it will use broader words to try and get what you where looking for. Take a look at the screenshot for more insights.

PowerMouse Demo

This is the heart of the website. The discussion area is like a forum but on steroids. It’s divided in various categories (wikipedia, query examples, labs, the arts, …). You also have a category where you’ll see all the posts either order by date or by relevancy. Each post has it’s title, author, nยบ of views, votes and comments. It works in a similar way as Digg does. Members read a post and vote if the like the idea. The more number of votes an idea gets, the higher it gets on the relevancy list. For each post you can also set a flag that will allow you to follow the activity (you’ll get updates on your news feed). Each time a comment or an idea you’ve posted gets a vote, you’ll get a new entry on your news feed. Every time someone comments on either a comment you made or an idea you sent, you’ll get an entry on your news feed. There is even a RSS feed for the discussions, albeit the url is hidden in one of the posts. One of the coolest features is that, before post something, the system suggest similar already summited ideas. If by any chance someone has already posted a similar question or idea, you’ll know before you actually send yours, avoiding sending duplicated post.


Idea 1

Idea 2

This section lets you browse some of the member’s wished-for queries. It lets you create new queries and comment on the ones that are stored already.

The site spins around the idea of karma points. That’s similar to many other ranking/voting systems around like Slashdot, Digg or ycnews. You earn points for commenting, for using the demos, for posting an idea and for every vote your ideas or comments get. The People‘s area lets you monitor what members are on the system. You can order them by karma rank, recent activity, number of ideas, etc. In the future some demos will require a certain level of karma, so it’s always important to reach a good karma level.


My opinions? Well, I think Powerset has achieved a great goal, get lots of testers involved. It’s true that the demos disappoint, I think most people expect a less rigid demo, but hey, at least they are showing that the technology isn’t vaporware. I love the approach of letting people participate at all stages of the product development. Few companies do that and it’s a breath of fresh air. The interface and user experience of Powerlabs is awesome. One of the best I’ve seen so far. It’s easy, straightforward and useful. Importing the voting scheme from places like Digg is a very smart move, they’ve managed to engage a lot of users and that’s great. The downside, after playing for some weeks and due to the lack of more comprehensive questions and corpuses, you end up not knowing what more to do. In my opinion, it lacks three important things, an RSS feed for the news feed, that way you can keep updated instead of having to refresh the browser, a way to ask much more open questions and a bigger and updated corpus (I think this might be on its way). Nevertheless, they are moving fast and each week they are adding new features, so I’ll keep checking and I’ll update when necessary.

Any Powerseters willing to add some comments?

Image credits: Powerset



  1. hello waz up am a science student,i found this topic very appealing,i will like to get more of you topics

    Comment by checkapos — November 22, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  2. Hi checkapos, I’m glad you like these topics. I’m going to write more about this topics in the future as it’s probably one of the future trends in search engines. If you want to keep updated you can always subscribe to the RSS feed of the blog here.

    Comment by alexbarrera — November 22, 2007 @ 3:01 pm

  3. So, do you have a sense yet about how Powerset is going to fit into the search landscape? Does it strike you as a better Mahalo, for example?

    Call me curious. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Comment by Mark Evans — November 24, 2007 @ 3:03 pm

  4. Hi Mark,
    I think Powerset will find it’s space and eventually will start growing, albeit slowly at first. For me, the main problem is to learn to search for something in a semantical fashion. People are so used to keywords that it’s difficult at first to know what exact phrase you need to get the best out of the search engine. For example, if you use obscure verbs you might get worse result than if you use more common verbs. Or for example, the use of negations like: “some gadget that is not red” might give strange results (yet). But I do think that the quality of some of the results is much better than current search engines. The problem is that it’s too early to know if Powerset’s engine will work in the same fashion on a bigger scale. I haven’t used Mahalo in the past. I played a little bit with it last day and well, I do see some of its value, but not as a search engine. It won’t scale as fast as Powerset (if they do it correclty). I think they are targeted to different users. If you see their alexa traffic they are gaining users at a very slowly rate. What is your opinion on Mahalo and Powerset?

    Comment by alexbarrera — November 25, 2007 @ 7:55 pm

  5. Thanks so much for this detailed blog post! We should add it as part of the FAQ. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Glad to hear that you are enjoying Powerlabs. We hope you continue to log in; we’ve got many new features and demos coming soon.

    – Katie Conry
    Powerlabs Analyst

    Comment by Katie Conry — November 26, 2007 @ 11:19 pm

  6. Hi Katie,
    I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did ๐Ÿ™‚ Feel free to take pieces and craft it into the FAQ, it would be an honor ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I keep login in, trying to beat all of you guys with my karma points. I’m pretty curious as to what the new features are going to be.

    Comment by alexbarrera — November 26, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

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