During the rise of the Beat movement in the 1950s and ’60s, avant-garde writer William S. Burroughs developed a process he called the “cut up” technique, in which he would literally cut out sentences and passages from poems, stories and books (both his own and those of other writers) and stitch them together. If Burroughs had ever decided to automate this process and develop an online encyclopedia, it would probably look a lot like Cpedia. The new offering from Cuil — a startup (pronounced “cool”) that launched in 2008, claiming to have developed a better and faster search engine than Google’s — is destined to do at least one thing very well: make even the most poorly-researched Wikipedia page look like the repository of all the world’s knowledge.
Cpedia launched last week with a blog post from Cuil co-founder and former IBM staffer Tom Costello, who described a meeting he had with Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy when Costello and his wife Anna Patterson (a former Googler) were trying to raise money for Cuil. Joy told Costello that people didn’t need a new search engine that just returned a list of results, they needed something that would write an article based on a search. A note on Cpedia topic pages reads: “We find everything on the Web about your topic, remove all the duplication and put the information on one page.”
It’s important to note that this doesn’t say the service finds everything on the Web and makes sense of it and then puts it all on one page. If what you want are snippets of articles from somewhere (links to source pages are difficult to find) mixed up seemingly at random and then displayed as though they were a coherent encyclopedia entry, even when they are not, then you are going to love Cpedia.
To take just one example, in the entry on Philo Farnsworth, the man who many credit with inventing the modern television, the article starts with a reference to — and a large picture of — an actor named Jimmy Simpson, who apparently played Farnsworth in a movie. There is some history about the development of television and the race with RCA (which reverse engineered Farnsworth’s patents and took credit for the discovery), but it’s all mixed up with references to Simpson and the movie, along with random people including actor Sid Caesar and Jonas Salk, as well as snippets of Farnsworth-related information that appear without any reference to anything.
In his blog post launching the service, Costello says that Cpedia “is very different from a traditional search engine, and not at all like Wikipedia, but that is its strength; it is something new and different.” The Cuil founder is almost certainly right. Unfortunately, being new and different doesn’t necessarily mean that it is either good or useful. Other users who have tried it out describe it as “sentence after sentence of automated nonsense,” and Tumblr and Instapaper developer Marco Arment says that “if this feature is meant to become a serious product, I truly feel bad for them.”
If nothing else, Cpedia proves that there are some things that algorithms and automated processes can’t do — and one of those things is to make sense of all the information that exists on the Internet. Perhaps human beings are good for something after all.