PROFILE-Autonomy applies 18th century theory to shape data

Chris Wickham
Reuters Middle East

* Autonomy software structures messy world of information

* Group rode wave of information explosion

* Client list includes government, major companies

* 18th century scholar focused on probability of potential


LONDON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Autonomy, a British software

group at the heart of an accounting storm with owner

Hewlett-Packard, applies theory from the 18th century to

extract meaning and value from a modern world swamped with

unstructured information and data.

Its founder Michael Lynch, 47, and a former student of

mathematical computing at Cambridge University, developed a

system to impose order on information from the chaotic

avalanches of emails, audio, video and social media.

The software provided by Autonomy, which lists clients

ranging from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and NASA

to Boeing and the BBC, aims to deliver strategic,

commercial and security advantage to its customers.

"About 90 percent of all data is unstructured," Alan

Woodward, a visiting professor of computing at the University of

Surrey, told Reuters. "Autonomy was one of the first companies

to come up with a way to search that unstructured data in an

intelligent way."

Other big groups, including IBM, Microsoft

and Oracle, have interests in search and information

management systems but analysts say Autonomy was ahead in

applying these techniques to the messy universe of unstructured

information across a wide range of formats.

Autonomy applications range from a system that suggests

answers to call centre operators to one that monitors television

channels for national intelligence agencies.

"The characteristic that makes human information

unstructured is its form - it does not fit neatly into the rows

and columns of a database, but exists in various formats

including books, email messages, surveillance video, chat

streams, and phone calls that occur across networks, the web,

the cloud, and numerous mobile devices," Autonomy says on its


"Growing at a rate three times that of structured data, the

increasing deluge of unstructured information makes up

approximately 90 percent of all information. The challenge for

the modern enterprise is to understand and extract value from

this rich sea of human information," it says.


Woodward said Autonomy's modern roots go back to work done

on relational databases in the 1960s that made information

quicker and easier to search.

"The point is that in the nineties they cottoned on to a

crest of a wave," said Woodward. "The amount of information that

has been created in the last 20 years is more than has been

created in the whole history of mankind."

Lynch, who has been referred to as Britain's Bill Gates,

managed to commercialise statistical techniques that go back to

the 18th century when the Reverend Thomas Bayes studied how to

estimate the probability of potential outcomes.

Bayes' efforts centered on calculating the probabilistic

relationships between multiple variables and determining the

extent to which these relationships are affected when new

information is obtained.

Autonomy developed the relatively simple techniques behind

keyword searches, like those done using Google, and applied them

in more complex areas like scene detection in video.

Its 65,000 customers worldwide span government, education,

energy, law, investigation, healthcare and retail.

If a user is looking for video about rockets, for instance,

the system will look for other material linked to rockets, like

warheads, and offer it up ranked according to relevance.

As well as responding to queries, the system can send out

alerts when it spots a pattern and it can learn to refine its

monitoring from the history of tasks it has been given.

Hewlett-Packard Co has levelled a charge of dodgy accounting

at Autonomy and is taking an $8.8 billion charge. HP said on

Tuesday it had discovered "serious accounting improprieties" and

"a wilful effort by Autonomy to mislead shareholders" after a

whistleblower came forward.

It alerted regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lynch, who led the firm he had co-founded when it was sold

to HP last year for $11.1 billion, has denied wrongdoing and

blamed mismanagement by its new owners for shredding its value.

Whether HP paid too much for the British company, or whether

its value was improperly inflated, it is entirely possible that

any investigation into HP's allegations might well make use of

Autonomy's own products.

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