Three wise men

It's a boon for pub quiz cheats and a godsend for trivia addicts. But can Any Questions Answered take on Google and win?

Caroline Kohn is sitting at a computer in her children's playroom in Croydon, getting paid to surf the internet. Behind her is a table football set, its players suspended mid-match. Toys and games are tucked under the sofas and spill across the carpet. On weekday afternoons, Kohn's youngest child sleeps in his cot upstairs, while his mother answers strange questions from curious people all over the world. "How do I get to Swindon from Bristol Parkway?" they ask. "What is the meaning of life?" And: "How many vasectomies were performed in Iraq in 2004?"

Caroline Kohn is sitting at a computer in her children's playroom in Croydon, getting paid to surf the internet. Behind her is a table football set, its players suspended mid-match. Toys and games are tucked under the sofas and spill across the carpet. On weekday afternoons, Kohn's youngest child sleeps in his cot upstairs, while his mother answers strange questions from curious people all over the world. "How do I get to Swindon from Bristol Parkway?" they ask. "What is the meaning of life?" And: "How many vasectomies were performed in Iraq in 2004?"

From rooms such as this one, from Croydon to Colorado, AQA (or Any Questions Answered) aims to change the way we get information. Google is all very well, but it's not available for those pub debates when you urgently need to find out what that music in the Brut aftershave advert was. Microsoft's new search engine tries to answer questions in real English, but even Microsoft can't programme it with a sense of humour.

AQA's secret weapon is that it combines "intelligent computer algorithms" with a team of handpicked researchers - and you can text it, at any time of the day or night, from your mobile. AQA does exactly what it says on the tin: for a charge of £1, you can text any question to the number 63336 and it will be answered within 10 minutes.

The service, launched last April, is now capable of answering up to 16,000 questions a day and is about to employ its 100th researcher. Its crack workforce is largely made up of students, women with school-age children and retired people who live in different time zones all over the world. They can answer your question at any hour. And they really, really don't like to be beaten.

A researcher as good as Kohn can answer a question every two minutes. She's helped by the fact that every query AQA has answered has been added to a database, so a question as common as "What is the meaning of life?" will quickly yield a list of possible answers on her computer screen. "Ego texting" questions are more tricky, but Caroline is doing well. "We were mentioned on Power FM in Southampton yesterday," she says. "We had lots of 'Who am I?' questions straight afterwards, so I looked on friendsreunited.co.uk for somebody with that name in Southampton and a lot of them were there."

Questions are routed out to researchers via a simple queuing system, but every so often a "hard question" will appear on the screen, demanding the attention of any researcher brave enough to attempt it. These are questions that have been rejected five times and sent into the inboxes of senior researchers, such as AQA's founders, Colly Myers, Paul Cockerton and Bill Batchelor.

These three former employees of the computer group Psion came up with the idea of AQA early last year when they decided they wanted to invent the Next Big Thing. "We said, 'What is big now?'" Myers says. "Texting is big. What works on the internet? Search engines do. So how can we design a search engine for mobiles?"

The marriage of technology with the human element was the answer. "One of the things computers are completely rubbish at is understanding humans," Myers says. By combining a steadily-growing database of answers with a team of smart homeworkers, AQA has created a dream product - a search engine with a brain. And those in the know can't get enough of it.

Since its launch, AQA has answered hundreds of thousands of questions. The most popular subjects have been relationships, going out, general knowledge and travel, including desperate queries like "Help! When is the last train home?" They range from the nerdy ("Who played centre forward for Leyton Orient on 4 November 1978?") to the hopeful ("I think I'm in love with him... What shall I do?") to the downright cheeky ("How big is my penis?").

"You could end up making all your decisions through AQA," says one addict, rather desperately. "It's like the Magic 8-Ball for the text generation."

Unless the user starts up a text conversation with AQA - not uncommon - the researchers don't know how their answers have been received. The service offers a money-back deal for anyone not satisfied with their answer. If the researchers can't answer a question, they always reply with some relevant and interesting information, or text back within the allocated time to let questioners know that they are still working on it. So far, only 40 people have requested a refund - not a bad hit rate after 2,000 questions a day for 10 months.

So far, AQA's founders have been reluctant to advertise. "We have to plan our growth very carefully," Myers says. "If we get too many questions, the answer rate will drop and we won't be providing a good service." But word of mouth has reached high places; Cockerton recently got an e-mail from the Rev Gareth Saunders, saying AQA had correctly predicted the new Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane. "Not bad, given that the election is supposed to have something to do with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit," he wrote.

While they don't expect researchers to act as the Voice of God, Myers et al do set high standards. Researchers must be positive and encouraging, they must give as comprehensive an answer as possible, and they must reply within 10 minutes. They must use proper English; text-speak isn't allowed. And each answer can be no more than 153 characters long, including punctuation and spaces. "We could have had answers that were more than one text message, but we want people to be enchanted," Myers says. "We decided to answer in only one SMS. That's the 'wow' factor."

In keeping with its responsible business strategy, AQA won't answer questions on drugs or prostitution, and it does tell customers what is good for them. "If people get too obsessed we sometimes tell them that we won't answer any more," Myers says. "One asked, 'Which female celebrities have ticklish feet?' He kept texting, 'More.'"

There is also an editorial policy about how AQA will answer. Researchers must bear in mind that a question could be coming from a 40-year-old man joking with his friends at the pub - or from a confused 13-year-old desperate for answers and not knowing where to turn. Researchers have been asked: "Can I get HIV from kissing?" and they must respond as if the caller really doesn't know. "We've passed people on to Childline before," Myers says. "We have people wanting to commit suicide; there are some lonely people out there. We have to make sure we answer responsibly. People trust us."

As well as being fast, optimistic and diplomatic, AQA researchers are expected to pass several tests before they are allowed to "go live". AQA's ads call for "people with degree-level education or equivalent," but this criterion is only added so that wannabes will not be startled when they see the entrance exam. And the test is tough. Without giving too much away, it's hard to be wise and positive in 153 characters and 10 minutes when the tester wants to know what kind of noise a springbok makes (it's a kind of weird barking sound).

While most research is done online, there are many other resources. "I have football statistics books, encyclopedias and a library of films," Cockerton says. "I've also phoned friends. If I were asked the springbok question I'd only have to look across the office to Colly: he's South African."

The trickiest question of all, of course, is the one to which there is no answer. "Somebody asked, 'Which Manchester United player wrote a book about the club in 1945 that had a red cover and the following words...?'" Cockerton says. "There is no such book, but by God we tried hard to find it before we could say that." Kohn points out that "when somebody asks you to explain Einstein's theory of relativity in 153 characters, that's hard". Also, some information is not in the public domain. "Financial information is like that," Myers says. "And some people buy up football statistics and set up their own websites."

Hours have been wasted on people trying to beat the system, but it takes a lot for AQA to admit defeat. Their toughest question took a week to answer. It was: "What was the first-day increase in all British IPOs in 2003?" - that is, initial public offerings on the stock market. "I got my banking people to investigate and a student did the spreadsheet," Myers says triumphantly. "That customer got a lot of value out of us."

The average time taken is much less, of course; senior researchers answer one question every minute or so. The pay is about 30p per answer, or between £5 and £10 an hour for the average homeworker. And, as Kohn points out: "I don't have to pay for childcare." She's loving it so much that she's recommended the job to her friends. As she tries to squeeze reams of directions from the AA website into one text message, she adds: "The baby sleeps in the afternoons, and I can answer questions then. Sometimes I'll log on for an hour in the evenings. I can work whenever I like."

The next stage of the business plan is to expand into another English-speaking country. And, by the end of the year, AQA hopes to go bilingual, and then multilingual. "It will probably be German first, and then Italian," Myers says. "We'll have dual-language researchers, so they can search the internet in English and translate the answer back into the questioner's language. Most of the information online is in English, so for non-English speakers that will be really useful."

In Croydon, the questions are rolling in. A query about the Valencia tomato festival has appeared for the second time in the day. "It's either a pub quiz or it's homework," Kohn frowns (such devious behaviour has led AQA to warn pubs to ban mobiles at their quiz nights).

As soon as Kohn has texted in the answer (two truckloads of tomatoes are thrown each year), the question: "What's a good chat-up line?" appears on her screen. "I like the agony-aunt ones," she says. "They're quite funny and quick to do. And it's good fun when you get the same person coming back and asking more and more questions. Once, I answered the 'best chat-up line' question one evening, and the next morning found the same phone number texting to ask, 'What's the best way to deal with a one-night stand?'"

AQA PUT TO THE TEST

How many pasties would fit in Buckingham Palace?

A large pasty has a volume of 0.16 cubic feet. Buckingham Palace has an approximate volume of 7,820,000 cubic feet, requiring 49 million pasties.

What is the offside rule?

A player is in an offside position if they are nearer to the opposition's goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent. There is more.

Which jazz singer had a song about worshipping the trousers that cling to you?

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-96) was the jazz singer who sang "Bewitched", the song that includes the lyric "And worship the trousers that cling to him".

How long would it take to skateboard from Amsterdam to Singapore and how much weight would you lose?

At seven hours per day at 6mph it would take 170 days for the 7,170 miles. At 500 calories per hour, and taking no extra food, weight loss would be 170lb.

Explain Einstein's theory of relativity

Einstein's general theory of relativity is hard to summarise, but considers all observers to be equivalent, not only those moving at a uniform speed.

What is the hardest question?

The hardest questions to answer are the ones to which there is no answer, for example finding the lyrics to a song that doesn't exist.

How tall is Mrs Thatcher?

Apologies, AQA can not tell you the height of Margaret Thatcher since this information is not in the public domain. Her maiden name is Roberts.

What's a good chat-up line?

The best are open questions: "Apart from being sexy, what do you do for a living?" or "What do I have to do to get you to buy me a drink?"

What will this week's lottery numbers be?

AQA suggests that the lottery numbers for this week could be 7, 15, 17, 24, 35 and 42. AQA hopes that you win a large amount of money with them.

You're fantastic. Will you sleep with me?

AQA combines humans and computers and whilst it likes compliments it can't have sex. Anyway, AQA is washing its hair and has a headache.

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