Wolfram Alpha is About Computational Search

May 19, 2009

(ChattahBox) — Wolfram|Alpha, named after Stephen Wolfram, the British-born computer scientist and inventor behind the project, was launched yesterday.  Once heralded as a Google or killer, it is in fact a different approach and tool for specific kinds of searches not currently offered by the major search engines.  The  WolframAlpha engine takes a query and  computes answers rather than pointing to websites, using computational power to crunch through huge databases.

Search engines like Google match queries against a list of indexed documents, i.e. tells you where to find information, while WolframAlpha attempts to return specific answers to well formulated questions, providing the information is readily available.  The service can solve mathmatical equations, compute the distance and time to get between two geographical objects, the temperature of a city on a specific date, caloric content of a meal, to name a few. The user does not have to search through links provided by the engine; the answer comes immediately and, if appropriate, is accompanied by charts or graphs.

Wolfram, 49, a physics prodigy who earned a PhD aged 20,  developed advanced software called Mathematica, used mainly by scientists. In an attempt to bring Wolfram/Alpha which shares a large amount of code with Mathematica to a wider audience his team have equipped their system with a wide array of mathematical equations, as well as 10 terabytes of data from thousands of sources: scientific journals, encyclopedias, government repositories and any other source the company feels is credible.  But even with massive sources of data, a big part of the battle, is teaching the engine to parse ambiguous human language, so it knows what it’s being asked to do.  To see how Alpha works in the hands of an expert, there’s a screencast narrated by Wolfram Research founder Stephen Wolfram you might find informative, too.

Using WolframAlpha is free but the company plans to include advertising eventually and to offer paid versions with extra features.  Wolfram/Alpha is likely to remain a research tool for relatively sophisticated users for now, until its knowledge base expands and its ability to understand poorly crafted queries improves.  Last week perhaps in response, Google previewed a new experimental service called Google Squared, which will automatically produce spreadsheets of information from search terms.


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