Words in a text are wannabee ‘hot’ links. So treat every word on a web page as a launch pad for searching, translating, pronouncing, defining, thesaurizing, etc. An old digital dream, already explored in dictionary/encyclopedia mode by Gurunet (“See a word on your screen? Just Alt-Click it!”), and from a more multilingual/translation perspective by Babylon.

Now comes Hyperwords, the outcome of a Liquid Information project. On October 14, it is due to launch a comprehensive new word-click service. Users will be able to right click on a word or phrase on a web page and access a dictionary definition, a Wikipedia reference (if relevant), a web search engine, a translation engine, a blog search, and more.

If you select a phrase from a web page, the linked translation engine will run the usual clunky word-for-worder (e.g. have an assistant mark-up interesting passages is faux-Frenched as avoir une marge bénéficiaire auxiliaire intéresse des passages (lit.= ‘have an extra profit margin interest passages&#8217wink), but the system can at least correctly guess spelling errors in its dictionary: on Hyperwords’ own site, the word cooperation is mis-typed as *coperation but captured correctly by the dictionary link.

Hyperwords’ inventor Frode Hegland makes big claims about his product in a recent French language interview. He suggests it gives a third dimension to the hitherto 2D world of websites, offering better content visualization and interlinkage for “knowledge workers”. He reckons the menu that displays when you click on a word “is hierarchical rather than a long list” (doesn’t look like it yet), and hints that Hyperwords will only offer what is needed at a given moment in your knowledge work (how does it track your needs?). Hegland claims its is “the same principle as human language: you can say a lot of things, but you don’t need to think beforehand about all the sentences you are going to speak. Expressive possibilities develop in the very process of thinking.” (my translation).

This Liquid Information vision explicitly invokes the pre-web luminary Douglas Engelbart, who pitched the augmentation of human intelligence through rich human-computer interfaces as an alternative to the old AI agenda of installing automatic text understanding inside the computer. Yet Hyperwords looks more like a Ted Nelson type hypertext application, especially as the click menu offers a link to Nelson’s about to be implemented(?) and rather laborious Transquoter functionality (“brings in quotations from textfiles and web pages all over the Net and concatenates them into a web page, keeping each quotation connected to its source”).

A service such as Hyperwords will ultimately depend on the value of the resources it taps into. So far, it looks like a slightly faster way to access existing Google and other resources, where (to parody Richard Dawkins’ definition of the selfish gene), words are just a search engine’s way to generate new searches.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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