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Internet

The ultimate low-tech engine

There's no software code under the hood of the HumanSearch search engine. Rather, there's something decidedly retro: elbow grease.

There's no software code idling under the hood of the HumanSearch Internet search engine. Rather, there's something decidedly retro: elbow grease.

The muscle belongs to a team of five undergraduate students at the University of Rhode Island who are trying to make searching a kinder, gentler--albeit a bit slower--experience. Through the HumanSearch site, the students collect queries written in standard English, such as "Who is the prime minister of the Czech Republic?" or "What astrological sign is Michael Jackson?" The students then personally research the questions in the school library and on the Net to provide thoughtful answers by email within 48 hours--all for free.

This reporter is still waiting to find out the population of Brazil.

The search service is more of an undergraduate experiment than a business. The students hope to eventually receive support from their university. But for now, it's mainly a labor of love.

The story of sleepless student devotion to a search engine may sound familiar. In 1994, Jerry Yang and David Filo, two Stanford University graduate students, started Yahoo, one of the first Internet search engines, in their spare time.

Eventually, both students dropped out of school to run Yahoo full-time and to take the company public. The company's stock closed today at 26-5/8.

Although HumanSearch isn't likely to repeat the success of Yahoo, the project is driven by the same enthusiasm as its more commercial counterpart, not to mention a sincere effort to give users better responses than are those available from today's search engines.

"We hope to change the face of Internet searching," said Clay Johnson, leader of the HumanSearch project, in a statement. "By opening a gateway for inexperienced Internet users to seek assistance from our staff, we can accommodate the recent burst of the Net populous over the past year."

HumanSearch is not the only human-powered search engine. Another, Answers.com uses a staff of freelancers to track down answers to questions for fees ranging from $1.79 to $11.99, depending on the complexity of the question. But like HumanSearch, the site is a bit slow: Answers.com yields results to users within 24 hours.