World domination and “a Ferrari in every driveway”

“Revolutionise search.”

When I first heard these words linked to South African startup Gatfol (pronounced with a soft English ‘g’, rather than the hard Afrikaans sound) I couldn’t help but ask: Do we really need better search on the web? Do we even need a different kind of search?

Google’s crown as search king was hard won against such a strong field of competitors, it seems unlikely for even a juggernaut like Microsoft to unseat them with its contender, Bing. What chance does an upstart from the southern tip of Africa with limited funding have?

The thing is, Gatfol isn’t trying to supplant Google or services like it. As founder Carl Greyling explains it, they just help you figure out what keywords should be used to get the result you want.

Simply put, where Google crawls and indexes the web based on keywords, Gatfol crawls through bodies of text and determines the relationship between words.

The result, according to Greyling, is a system that can “translate” natural language into language our current keyword-based machines can understand.

One example he gave is making the statement “it’s sweltering in here,” and having your air conditioner respond by pumping colder air into the room.

In the past one may have said that this sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but nowadays Greyling’s explanation is more likely to attract comparisons to Siri, the natural language voice command tool Apple shipped on its newest iPhone.

However, according to Greyling, Gatfol works differently to the technology that powers Siri. He explained that they can take any English sentence, swop out words and phrases for others with the same meaning, and put it back together so that semantically and grammatically the resulting sentence is the same as the input.

Carl and Sally Greyling
Carl and Sally Greyling

Greyling went on to enumerate the wide field of possible applications for their technology, saying that they aim to have their technology running everywhere, allowing humans to naturally “speak to data.”

Among the fields Greyling used as examples were intelligence, semantic web searches, matching algorithms for online dating sites, and music services like Pandora.

Unashamed about Gatfol’s ultimate goal, Greyling smiled and said that the plan is “world domination” and a lot of money for everyone involved, which he expresses as “a Ferrari in the driveway.”

For the moment, however, Gatfol is running on a shoestring budget.

There is something romantic about the humble room full of repurposed corporate workstations crawling and processing the 2 terabytes of data Gatfol pulls down every month, but it also intimates a significant level of commitment.

It’s small but not small fry, a patchwork that’s humble but not comical.

Greyling said that they’ll be launching a proof of concept application on their website in the next few weeks to help them secure additional funding.

They also plan to launch a free browser-based tool called “g-spot” which he says will transform long, complicated searches into compact result-optimised queries.

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World domination and “a Ferrari in every driveway”