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Written by Julie Garner   
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ImageSix years ago, while flying from Seattle to Los Angeles for his brother’s wedding, Oren Etzioni began to wonder what his fellow passengers had spent on their tickets. So he asked a few, and was puzzled by their answers. No one had paid the same amount; those who had bought the latest had paid the least; and he had paid more than anyone. To the UW computer science professor, it simply didn’t compute.

So Etzioni started thinking about how to use historical data to predict future prices. The result was Farecast, a successful start-up company that helps prospective air travelers know the best time to buy their tickets.

Etzioni is also the wunderkind behind Netbot and MetaCrawler—seminal innovations from the Internet’s salad days. His current projects include the search tools KnowItAll and Opine. Although he’s only 43, Etzioni is a genuine pioneer in the world of artificial intelligence. For 20 years, he has been bringing his very real intelligence to bear on it.
“I think of the computer as a big pencil,” he says. “Some people find the object itself fascinating, but I just think of it as a tool. Computers are very rigid and literal-minded and dumb. So a huge motivation is to make computers our friends.”

With his unpretentious manner, unruly hair and deep purple T-shirt that says—what else?—“artificial intelligence,” Etzioni hardly has the look of a high-flyer in the world of computer science. In fact, he’s decidedly down-to-earth. He likes talking about the recondite research questions that interest him even with people for whom opening a Word document is a victory.

While many of his ideas lead to commercial ventures, Etzioni is primarily a researcher and teacher who wants to develop solutions and tools to help real people. Most of all, he wants to design a more useful Web that will eliminate barriers among people, foster communication across nationalities and cultures and be accessible to all.

“There are researchers all over the world who excel at top-down ideas that are beautiful in their own right but don’t connect to useful applications,” says Andrew McCallum, an associate professor of computer science at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a researcher in artificial intelligence. “Many people do well at one or the other, but Oren’s tremendous strength is how he brings these two together.”

Etzioni’s interest in artificial intelligence has nothing to do with inventing Robocops to patrol the streets or anything remotely Hollywood. Rather, he wants to figure out how it can be used to make computers better at “knowing” what people want when they ask for information. Opine is a good example—a program that applies text-understanding techniques to product reviews. It can automatically identify the product attributes that people care about (e.g., hotel location), relevant opinions about the attributes (e.g., “perfect”), and more.  Opine can distill hundreds of reviews into a concise summary of attribute and opinion, allowing people to understand, at a glance, the gist of the reviews without having to read each one. Likewise, KnowItAll takes the massive body of information that a Google search would return and culls it for the results most likely to be relevant. Etzioni says it “transforms the problem of answering questions from finding a needle in a haystack to a process of being presented with a variety of needles and choosing the one you want.” He hopes a version of both products will be ready for the market in five years or so.

One product is already here. Farecast claims to predict with 70 to 75 percent accuracy whether airline ticket prices are likely to rise or fall. Etzioni’s quirky sense of humor led him originally to name the project Hamlet—a slight twist on the Danish prince’s famed query: “To buy or not to buy. That is the question.” “Farecast is helping people save money,” he says. Etzioni also sits on the board of Zillow, another Seattle-area company that uses predictive technology to calculate the market value of real estate.

And as the director of the UW’s Turing Center, a forum dedicated to exploring communication issues from both the human and machine perspective, Etzioni is taking steps that he hopes will lead to the creation of a semantic Web or Web 3.0. (The Turing Center was founded in 2005 with a multi-million-dollar gift from Jonathan Pool, an entrepreneuer and former UW professor.) Anyone who searches the Web using today’s engines knows that a search will generate hundreds of pages through which they’ll have to sift to find useful nuggets of information. Etzioni is laying the groundwork for a Web that could bring human-like intelligence to search questions so that they yield information in tidy pre-organized bundles. The conundrum is how to get the intelligence into the machine.