Aardvark forwards the question to chosen users and funnels the replies back to the asker. Users can ask questions through the Aardvark website, through an iPhone app, through e-mail, or by instant message.
Horowitz says users are motivated to answer questions through a desire to help out another person, pride in their own knowledge, and basic goodwill. In surveys the company has done, most users liked to receive questions at least once every couple of weeks. The site’s statistics also suggest this is true–Horowitz says that 50 percent of users who’ve signed up for Aardvark answer questions regularly.
Pedro Domingos, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Washington, says that having a human answer questions isn’t always necessary. He thinks it’s wasted effort to get a new answer every time a user asks, for example, about a standard physics equation.
Domingos also says that we shouldn’t give up on the idea of getting machines to answer questions. Data-mining and natural language processing systems have the potential to pull together data from a variety of obscure sources to respond to questions that no single human could answer, he says.
However, N. Sadat Shami, an IBM researcher who studies the way people search for expert information online, says Aardvark’s approach may be a good one for the consumer market. The questions asked through Aardvark may not need a single expert capable of replying. “You just need a response,” he says. “You need someone willing to put in the time to answer.”