A search program that learns? As yet, it doesn't have a dog's chance
Internet Fast Find and Autonomy are two of the most advanced devices for searching the Web. That, however, is where the similarity ends. While Fast Find is like the most powerful version of the Spitfire fighter - old technology pushed to the ultimate - Autonomy is a jet, or maybe a rocket. Trouble is, as with the early jets and rockets, the technology does not quite live up to its promise.

Fast Find, from the US software company Symantec, can run eight search engines simultaneously. It could not be simpler to use (assuming you have the Windows 95 that it needs). It is activated either from the tool bar at the bottom of the screen, or from a button that appears on your browser. The main function is Web Find - click on this, type in a word or phrase, and off it goes, scanning Yahoo! Excite, Magellan, and all the other engines.

It usually takes about a minute to complete the search, then generates a Web page that sorts and groups all related sites and disposes of duplicates. It rarely produces more than 20 groupings, but I find it gives excellent results.

Fast Find has a number of other functions, for instance saying when a Web page has changed, or helping to find a specific file. But for me Web Find is the jewel - I use it all the time.

Autonomy, which is produced by clever chaps in Cambridge, uses neural networks, or artificial intelligence. That means that it should not be as literal-minded as an ordinary program, and also that it should be able to learn.

The presentation is attractive and witty, using dogs as "intelligent agents" that wag their tails when they have found something; bones of varying lengths indicate a find. First you "train" an agent dog by writing in a description in plain English - "Chelsea is a football club supported by David Mellor", for example - and send it off to search. The dog digs away in the corner of the screen, woofing occasionally, while a new metaphor (consisting of different coloured "molecules") shows the progress of the search. As hopeful sites are identified, they are listed with a bone alongside. You can then click on them to find out whether the site is relevant.

Trouble is, it rarely is relevant. Autonomy certainly doesn't deluge you with millions of irrelevant sites, but in several tests it generated a fair share of rubbish. After a search for a computer newsletter, my dog was convinced that I should look at a site on alopecia. The trouble, as Autonomy admits, is that artificial intelligence works best where the agent is learning; on the first search it is unlikely to better (or even match) a search engine. It is only when you have "retrained" an agent - by telling it that a particular site is relevant - that it will start to show its paces. It should also be better at tracking vague concepts, where you have only a nebulous idea of what you want.

To criticise Autonomy harshly now is like looking at the crash of the Comet airliner in 1954, and saying jets will never catch on. But the functionality does yet not live up to the delightful promise of those dogs; I hope it does soonn

Downloadable test versions of Internet Fast Find and Autonomy are available from www.symantec.com and www.agentware.com. respectively

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