This week's edition of The Economist has an interesting piece in its technology section on search engines. Thankfully, not another critique of Google / its recent IPO, but at what we might expect of tomorrow's search engines. The article talks about research, done by Microsoft, into search engines that can answer questions.
A very simplistic example of how the technology works is this. Imagine a search engine homepage with a text box, allowing you to pose any question - e.g. the question "When was Neowin founded?". The search engine computers would then take the phrase, break it down and manipulate it (in terms of structure, tense etc) and then run a search on that data. The search engine would then return a list of the results; more intelligent engines could discard many (e.g. "never" would be discarded) of the results and leave the users with a list of possible answers (e.g. 4).
The technology is still a prototype, and is currently called 'Ask MSR' (MS Research). Bink has a collection of links and papers by MS researchers on the topic. Technologies like these give search engines the edge, if, and it's a big if, they work well. Dr Brill, researcher working on the system, wants to develop something that might give a fifty word answer to your question (view his research paper - PDF | HTML). The Economist notes that the system works ~40% of the time; not bad, but still needing work.