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Computing That Serves

From Personal Computer to Personal Assistant: Dr. David Embley's Data Engineering Laboratory

Dr. David W. Embley, a 2006 recipient of the Karl G. Maeser Award in Research and Creative Arts, has focused his research on information extraction from webpages. His research makes it possible for users to have their computers answer specific questions, rather than just typing in a search and receiving lists of webpage references. This new technology has the potential to dramatically alter the ways in which humans interact with machines in everything from surfing the web to researching family history.

Dr. David W. Embley, a 2006 recipient of the Karl G. Maeser Award in Research and Creative Arts, has focused his research on information extraction from webpages. His research makes it possible for users to have their computers answer specific questions, rather than just typing in a search and receiving lists of webpage references. This new technology has the potential to dramatically alter the ways in which humans interact with machines in everything from surfing the web to researching family history.

One example used by Embley is the process of finding a used car. The internet is littered with used car ads; however, potential buyers haven’t been able to go on the web and ask for a used red car for sale in Utah Valley priced under $1000—until now. Dr. Embley’s research in data extraction makes it possible for users to ask for such a car and receive an actual answer: a used red car for sale in Utah Valley priced under $1000 is available at Bob’s Used Cars on State Street in Orem.

Another possibility stemming from this research is the ability to schedule doctors’ appointments in a single step over the website. Users can simply enter in the time that they want an appointment, and the computer can find out when such an appointment is available and set it up. This involves machines talking to machines—the user’s PC communicating with the doctor’s. This same idea can be applied to other industries, such as airlines, as well. In essence, Embley wants to turn your personal computer into your personal assistant.

One of the most exciting areas influenced by Embley’s research applies to genealogy. The developing technology makes it possible to extract data over various paging, automatically extracting it and structuring it into something like a database—searchable and infinitely more accessible than pages of text. Teaching machines how to extract, for example, birth and death dates from an obituary (unstructured information), involves teaching the computer to recognize dates versus text and then to use keywords and other indicators to tell what kind of date it is.