Wolfram Alpha: It's Not a Search Engine, It's an Answer Engine

By Eliza Strickland | May 11, 2009 9:02 am

WolframAlphaA new online tool is expected to debut this week to answer questions like these: How far away from Earth is the planet Neptune at this point in its orbit? And how has the unemployment rate in Iowa’s Scott County changed over the past decade? WolframAlpha, a powerful new service that can answer a broad range of queries, has become one of the most anticipated Web products of the year. But its creator, Stephen Wolfram, wants to make something clear: Despite the online chatter comparing it to Google, his service is not intended to dethrone the king of search engines. “I am not keen on the hype,” said Mr. Wolfram [The New York Times].

Google’s mission, after all, is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In contrast, WolframAlpha doesn’t present users with an organized list of information; it sorts through data sets, performs calculations, and presents an answer. Type in a query for a statistic, a profile of a country or company, the average airspeed of a sparrow ― and instead of a series of results that may or may not provide the answer you’re looking for, you get a mini dossier on the subject compiled in real time that, ideally, nails the exact thing you want to know. It’s like having a squad of Cambridge mathematicians and CIA analysts inside your browser [Wired].

Wolfram, the creator of the “answer engine,” achieved earlier renown for his invention of the software program Mathematica, which WolframAlpha uses to perform calculations. Its “knowledge base” is made up of reams and reams of data — ranging from the kinds of facts you would find in a World Almanac, to highly specialized data from physics and other sciences — that some 100 employees at Wolfram Research have gathered, verified and organized over several years [The New York Times]. Wolfram’s site is aiming to be as trustworthy as gold-standard sources, such as NASA’s climate data sets. “If it’s not 100 per cent verifiable and accurate to the highest standards then it will not show up in our system” [New Scientist], says Alpha researcher Russell Foltz-Smith.

People who have tested out WolframAlpha say it easily answers questions about basic facts, and excels at comparisons. For example, when the search term “Microsoft Apple” was entered, it returned side-by-side tables and graphics on the stock prices and data on the two companies, plus a chart plotting the price of both stocks over time. [For the same search, Google’s] top hits were mostly news stories, from major and minor publications, containing both words [Technology Review]. However, WolframAlpha can still be stumped fairly easily when it doesn’t understand the user’s query, and Wolfram stresses that his computational engine is a work in progress.

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Image: WolframAlpha

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Honestly, as this is v 0.00000001 alpha of question answering computing (Computational Turk?), it’s amazing that it works so well so far. Considering it’s basically the first one of it’s kind (at least with any sort of success record and public access), it’s going to hobble for a while, but I’m guessing that public interaction (especially if they follow google and amazon’s ideas for instant feedback and ratings of the results) will help fine-tune their algorithm.

    The second I get access to W-A, I’m going to have so much fun. Besides the obvious fun stuff like “Will you marry me?” I can think of a thousand situations where I’ve wanted some random data about some random thing, and wasted tedious minutes finding it through google. I imagine W-A will provide a great jumping off point for further research, as it can produce relevant data on a subject, the kind you might have to do many google searches and then manually calculate yourself (which I am far too lazy to do).

  • Robert Layman

    Hi my name is Robert Layman
    I’m interested in Wolfram Alpha “answer Engine”.
    How do I find it?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    It launches this evening! They’re doing a live webcast at 7 pm central time, so the world can watch them bring it online. After that, just go to http://www.wolframalpha.com and try it out.


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