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TR: Could you give me an example of one of your research projects?

PR: We have something of a success in Yahoo Answers [where people in an online community ask and answer specific questions], which is ramping up faster that you can imagine. As a community like that takes off, you want its value to grow faster than the membership. To get that done, you need to find a better way of routing answers to people with questions. Quite likely, after a while, the question that you’ve asked has been answered by someone already, except in a different guise. How do we play this matchmaker role? How do we create a reputation system that rewards good answers and mitigates poor quality? How do we create an incentive structure for people to exhibit the right kind of behavior for social welfare?

TR: Good questions, what are the answers?

PR: It touches upon aspects of sociology, computer systems, and microeconomics. We have these areas coming together so there is a confluence of multiple technical disciplines.

As with any systematic research methodology, what you do is break it down into tangible questions. A ranking system for answers is very different from ranking for simple Web search. What does a reputation look like? A reputation platform you’re probably familiar with is eBay’s reputation platform for sellers, but this is different because you don’t have people selling things. How do you get people incentivized to do the right thing?

So you break these things down into concrete questions so that a search expert or systems expert or an economist would understand them, and then you send out people to go and think hard about these things. It’s not just solving the problem du jour. It’s actually about creating new sciences. And in the process, we see value in taking back to the scientific community new problems. The new solutions that we’ve created hopefully will become seminal kinds of scientific papers that others will build on.

TR: What do you think the future of computing and the Internet will look like?

PR: Will the browser be the dominant medium, the dominant window into the Internet? No. You’ll see rapid updates in other interfaces, especially in emerging markets [including China and South Korea] where a lot of people use mobile devices instead of computers. But if you think beyond that, from a Yahoo standpoint, the computer-human interaction isn’t really what we’re about. We don’t care about pixels on the screen. What we care about is how you interact with other humans. A computer and a mobile device are just mediums. To our children, these are just appliances that are just part of the background. That’s where we need to be.

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