US scientist Vannevar Bush was the first person to come up with the idea of a search engine. In an article published in The Atlantic magazine in 1945, he envisaged a mechanised device called Memex, on which all books, records and communications could be stored and, more importantly, consulted with speed and flexibility. “Wholly new forms of encyclopaedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified,” Bush wrote, deeming such technology necessary if humanity’s growing body of knowledge were to benefit mankind.
If Bush were still alive, he would probably be delighted to see a new search engine that largely fits his description – though he wouldn’t have predicted it would be created in China. Known as Magi, it is based on an artificial intelligence system, which according to its own white paper, “can summarise knowledge from natural language texts in any field into structured data, and provide human users as well as other AI [units] an interpretable, retrievable and traceable knowledge system that can gather and amend the information through lifelong learning”.
With a sleek design, Magi stands out from its peers because it aims to give a brief account of the enquired subject before directing the user to relevant web pages for greater details. The features are reminiscent of Wolfram Alpha, an online service that presents its computed answers to a factual query in the form of a fact sheet.
For example, if you type “Alibaba” in Magi’s search bar, under the “description” column it will display “the world’s second largest internet company after Google,” “China’s largest internet company,” “the world’s largest retail trading platform,” “Hong Kong’s largest company by market capitalisation,” and “the world’s largest IPO”. Under the “property” column it will list Alibaba’s stock code, its share prices, its offering prices, its shareholders, its CEO, its chairman, its motto, as well as its key competitor. Below “tags,” it highlights “company,” “e-commerce,” “platform,” “behemoth,” “brand”. Further down it comes up with some of Alibaba’s “synonyms” such as “Alipay,” “Taobao,” and “Tmall”.
Moreover, all the answers are labelled with a particular colour to indicate their credibility. For instance, a search of “Thomas Edison” yields “great inventor”. But this particular tag is underlined in red, meaning that the information is open to debate (a bit harsh in this case). To know where Magi derives its answers, look to the right where a list of websites are acknowledged.
For netizens outside China, the search results might not be as relevant as those offered by Google or Bing. After all, the learning environment for Magi’s AI system is confined by China’s “Great Firewall,” meaning that its universe of data is smaller and more restricted. But for a lot of local Chinese, Magi has proven a pleasant surprise. “Baidu’s not as handy as before. It’s all about advertisements and promotions now, and the search results are confusing,” complained a weibo user. “We really need a better search engine to replace Baidu,” added another.
We reported in WiC439 that many Chinese netizens had begun to shun Baidu because of its decision to prioritise its own ecosystem’s content at the expense of quality results. Its declining popularity has created room for new entrants such as Bytedance and Alibaba to take a slice of the search market – albeit Baidu still commanded over 76% share as of August (see WiC463).
Magi was developed in 2015 by Ji Yichao, then a 23 year-old graduate of Peking University. The whizz-kid also developed the input system Rasgueado (named after the flamenco guitar’s finger strumming technique) which allows users to edit text more easily on mobile devices.
His company Peak Labs has been backed by Neil Shen’s Sequoia Capital and the ZhenFund since 2012. It is not clear why Magi got so popular all of a sudden. But once it did, traffic swamped the search engine, and seemed to be too much for Magi’s server to handle, forcing Ji to apologise on weibo this month.
Baidu should be on alert. Not many analysts believed Yahoo would be outflanked by a latecomer when Google entered the search engine market in 1998…
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