Blog of the Day: Women In Tech – Karen Sparck Jones

‘Google-ing’ something would never have occurred to men without her: Karen Spärck Jones

The search engines we use daily rely on the natural language processing discoveries made by one female computer scientist, Karen Spärck Jones. She was recruited to Cambridge into the “Language Research Unit” by another female professor, the computational linguist Margaret Masterman.

Jones’ most notable achievements laid the groundwork for the sort of information retrieval we use today. She introduced the use of thesauri into language processing, allowing for computational recognition of similar words. And she also introduced the idea and methods of “term weighing” in information retrieval, which helped queries determine which terms were the most relevant.

A pioneer of computer science for work combining statistics and linguistics, and an advocate for women in the field.

When most scientists were trying to make people use code to talk to computers, Karen Sparck Jones taught computers to understand human language instead.

In so doing, her technology established the basis of search engines like Google.

A self-taught programmer with a focus on natural language processing, and an advocate for women in the field, Sparck Jones also foreshadowed by decades Silicon Valley’s current reckoning, warning about the risks of technology being led by computer scientists who were not attuned to its social implications.

“A lot of the stuff she was working on until five or 10 years ago seemed like mad nonsense, and now we take it for granted,” said John Tait, a longtime friend who works with the British Computer Society.

Sparck Jones’s seminal 1972 paper in the Journal of Documentation laid the groundwork for the modern search engine. In it, she combined statistics with linguistics — an unusual approach at the time — to establish formulas that embodied principles for how computers could interpret relationships between words.

By 2007, Sparck Jones said, “pretty much every web engine uses those principles.”

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