Alphabet's Jigsaw wants to explain tech jargon to you

The tech incubator, owned by Google's parent company, partners with the Washington Post to make technical terms easier to understand.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Jigsaw, one of the projects of Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, has launched a tool to explain technical terms to you.

James Martin/CNET

It might sound obvious, but the thing about tech is that sometimes it can get really, well, technical.

So Alphabet wants to help make nitty-gritty tech jargon simpler to explain to the masses. On Tuesday, Jigsaw, a tech incubator owned by Google's parent company, launched a website called the Sideways Dictionary that takes jargon and puts it into terms normal people would understand. Jigsaw partnered with the Washington Post to build the tool.

Here's how it works. Type in a term and the site gives you analogies that would make sense to laypeople.


For example, type in "encryption" and here's one of the analogies you'll get: "It's like sending a sealed letter instead of a postcard. To ban encryption would be like requiring all mail to be sent as postcards, including bank statements, medical letters and holiday photos. Your postman, neighbors and postal service would soon know you pretty well."

A tool like this could be helpful because technology touches almost every aspect of our lives now. Every time you go on a website, you're probably encountering "cookies" that help personalize the page for you. A "DDoS attack" could bring down your favorite website for a certain amount of time. A "zero-day" exploit is a previously unknown cybersecurity vulnerability. And if powerful enough, in some cases it could wreak havoc and expose your passwords or credit card information.

So yeah, it would be good if people knew what all those things mean.

Jigsaw, formerly called Google Ideas, is one of the projects of Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt. It's a think tank and company that nurtures young tech startups that tackle issues ranging from online censorship to violent extremism, according to its website. The company's president is Jared Cohen, a former State Department staffer.

For the Sideways Dictionary, Jigsaw even enlisted the help of Schmidt himself as well as Vint Cerf, who is considered one of the "fathers of the internet" and who now works at Google as chief internet evangelist, to write some of the analogies.

Here are the ones from Schmidt:

Machine Learning: It's like reading tea leaves. Because it's about recognizing patterns in data in order to predict what comes next. Except it works.

Cloud Computing: It's like a library, not a book store. A simple way to access every book on the planet without having to own them all.

And here are the ones from Cerf:

Internet Protocol Packets: These are like postcards. They have "from" and "to" addresses and limited content. You put them into the "Internet postbox" and they magically appear at the destination. They are not reliable, however, so another protocol, called Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) makes sure all the contents of the postcards get there, even duplicate postcards need to be re-sent. TCP also clears out duplicates and manages the flow of postcard traffic to avoid overloading the recipients Internet postbox.

Domain Name Servers: This is like a contact list in your mobile phone. You know your correspondents by their names but the contact list has telephone numbers and postal addresses. When you want to go to a particular web site, you look up the site's name (such as www.google.com) in the Domain Name lookup service and get back from that the Internet Protocol address of the destination Web Site.

Internet Protocol Address: This is a numeric address that identifies where a destination computer is attached to the Internet, similar to a postal address for a destination residence or business.

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