I spent most of today in the company of a group of fascinating people who work at the NHK http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, my hosts while I’m here in Tokyo. They had organised a half-day symposium on the future of broadcast archives, and especially on what we do with the written material that complements and explains the television and radio programmes that organisations like the BBC and NHK spend most of their effort making and broadcasting.
The Broadcasting Culture Research Institute was demonstrating the first version of a new archive search tool built in collaboration with the National Institute of Informatics http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Institute_of_Informatics and based on the same technology as the much- respected IMAGINE Booksearch http://imagine.bookmap.info/index.jsp
I had a sneak preview yesterday, and Jun Ibuki told me that the system was based around associative search rather than dumb keyword matching or a pre-defined data model. When he did so I thought of an old teacher of mine, Karen Sparck-Jones http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Sp%C3%A4rck_Jones who was one of the foremost experts in natural language processing. Karen sadly died in 2007, but I remember her and her husband Roger Needham http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Needham fondly, as I did the Diploma in Computer Science at Cambridge and was taught by both of them.
Today at the symposium I had a chance to talk to Professor Akihiko Takano from NII, who developed the system, and we discussed the technology behind Webcat Plus http://webcatplus.nii.ac.jp/ and the NHK system, and I thought the same thing.
And then, this evening over supper, I mentioned that my first degree was in philosophy and Jun and Akihiko and I started a complicated conversation about Wittgenstein, language games, search tools and the nature of programming (you had to be there), and at some point I mentioned Roger and Akihiko said that he had known him too, and that Karen’s work was behind his approach to search and that some years ago he had worked for Hitachi Labs, and that Roger and Karen had visited him in Tokyo.
At which point I felt a circle close, and another of the threads of my life became weft, trapped in the warp of my tapestry. And I paused to remember old friends, now gone, and the times that had brought me to this place, and this life.