E-Mailing Without an Address

A prototype e-mail system being tested at Stanford University later this year will radically change how users specify where their messages are supposed to be delivered.

Called SEAmail, for "semantic e-mail addressing," the system allows users to direct a message to people who fulfill certain criteria without necessarily knowing recipients' e-mail addresses, or even their names.

E-mail addresses are an artificial way of directing messages to the right people, says Michael Genesereth, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford who works on SEAmail. "You want to send messages to people or roles, not to strings of characters," he says.

Semantic technologies are aimed at making just this sort of thing possible. The idea is to create programs that understand context, so that users can interact with the software more naturally. Technical details, such as the need to specify an e-mail address, get hidden inside the system, so that everyday users no longer have to pay attention to them.

Genesereth says that users were wildly positive about a previous prototype built by his group and used among semantic researchers. For example, people wanting to send a message to "Michael Genesereth" could simply type his name as a recipient, and his most recent e-mail address would automatically be selected.

A user could also send a message to a group such as "all professors who graduated from Harvard University since 1960." SEAmail can handle both of these examples, Genesereth explains, without requiring the user to spend time doing research or keeping an address book up to date.

In SEAmail, a user selects recipients for a message in much the way that she would set up a search query. The parameters can be as simple as a person's name, or as complex as sets of logical requirements. But the system is limited by how much information it has about potential recipients.

"To realize the full potential, we need to have rich data about the people who are sending messages to each other, their interests, and so forth," Genesereth says. Within an organization, he says, there's usually a lot of available data.

The technical challenge is setting up an integrated version of the data that SEAmail can access easily.

The data needed to fulfill the request for professors who graduated from Harvard, for example, would probably come from several databases, Genesereth says. His team is currently researching ways to pull together existing databases without affecting how they're already being used.

But getting good data for SEAmail becomes a much harder problem on the broader Internet than it is within an organization, Genesereth says. Although there are semantic standards that can allow systems to extract information about people from Web pages, he worries that outdated information could degrade the quality of the system.

"This technology has clear benefits, but it's also ripe for misuse," says Oren Etzioni, director of the Turing Center at the University of Washington. "The technical issues are solvable. The tricky things are the social issues. How do we create a workable system, given the vagaries of human nature?"

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