Editorial: what's it all about?

Every single reader, I would guess, has done a Google search at least once. And most of us use it, or a search engine like it, every day. It's even been verbed now. To 'google' is now held in the same high regard as those people who like to 'hoover'.

 And, let's be honest, it does a pretty good job at finding the local pet store or what's on TV tonight. But what about the really weighty questions? Let's try some really important searches in Google and see if we can't get some answers.

"Is there a god?" brings up "six reasons to believe in god", followed by "The Official God FAQ", which has just one question: "Is there a god?" and one answer: "No". Another nicely balanced set of results comes from "Why are we here?", with a biblical viewpoint and an astrophysics site the latter of which has a quick explanation, starting: "We are here because, more than ten billion years ago, the universe borrowed energy from the vacuum to create vast amounts of matter and antimatter in nearly equal numbers…"

Inevitably, "The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything" returns Wikipedia pages on both the question from Douglas Adams' 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' and the famous answer itself: "42". "Get rich quick" returns sponsored results on schemes to get rich quick and unsponsored results on how not to fall for schemes to get rich quick. However, the top result for "What's it all about, then?" tells us that 90 per cent of Britons don't know what the prostate gland does, which isn't really what we were after. 

The sponsored result, however, is more useful as it offers us books: the one subtitled 'Philosophy and the Meaning of Life' probably contains more answers to our question than the autobiographies by Michael Caine and Cilla Black, although I've never read Cilla's so I can't be sure. Let's try "The meaning of life": The Wikipedia page on the philosophical question and the Internet Movie Database page on the 1983 Monty Python film are both sensible answers but, as is so often the case, Google can't know which one we're really looking for.

All that could change. In our cover story, Chris Edwards reports on the development of implicit search engines that try to understand what you are working on and therefore what it is you'd really like to know - without you even asking. It has its critics and it would need to be a lot more sophisticated than Microsoft's infuriating 'Office Assistant'. "Hi, I'm the Office Assistant. It looks like you're writing an Editor's Letter. Would you like some help? Try writing it earlier this time and not minutes before you go to press."

Imagine it. "Hi, I'm the Search Assistant. It looks like you're searching for the meaning of life. I conclude that everything isn't all right at home, so I've searched for the nearest golf club, where you can play a round or just have a nice cup of tea and a sit down. Can I help you with anything else today?"

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