Gerard Salton

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In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy


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When DEC opened it to outsiders on December 15, 1995, nearly 300,000 people tried it out. They were dazzled. AltaVista’s actual search quality techniques—what determined the ranking of results—were based on traditional information retrieval (IR) algorithms. Many of those algorithms arose from the work of one man, a refugee from Nazi Germany named Gerard Salton, who had come to America, got a PhD at Harvard, and moved to Cornell University, where he cofounded its computer science department. Searching through databases using the same commands you’d use with a human—“natural language” became the term of art—was Salton’s specialty. During the 1960s, Salton developed a system that was to become a model for information retrieval.

Born in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Singhal had arrived in the United States in 1992 to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Minnesota. He’d become fascinated with the field then known as information retrieval and was desperate to study with its pioneering innovator, Gerard Salton. “I only applied to one grad school, and it was Cornell,” he says. “And I wrote in my statement of purpose that if I was ever going to get a PhD, it’s with Gerry Salton. Otherwise, I didn’t think a PhD was worth it.” He became Salton’s assistant, got his PhD at Cornell, and eventually wound up at AT&T Labs.