Wolfram Alpha: Better search than Google?

March 8, 2009

There are a lot of large words and complex theories involved in Wolfram Alpha. What they all come down to may be nothing less that the next big thing in search.

Stephen Wolfram, the driving force behind the Wolfram Alpha search engine, will soon unveil his newest creation. Here is how Wolfram recently explained it on his blog:

All one needs to be able to do is to take questions people ask in natural language, and represent them in a precise form that fits into the computations one can do. I’m happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we’re actually managing to make it work … It’s going to be a website: www.wolframalpha.com. With one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms.

Wolfram has all of the qualifications necessary to make statements like that. He holds a Pd.D. From Caltech in theoretical physics. He is the man behind Mathematica, the wildly successful computational package that rose quickly to the top of it’s class. He is the author of the 2002 book A New Kind of Science, a controversial text involving cellular automata and complex systems.

Nova Spivack, entrepreneur, semantic web pioneer, and technology visionary, and the founder of EarthWeb, Radar Networks, the San Francisco Web Innovators Network (SFWIN), and Lucid Ventures, recently interviewed Wolfram and came away with more than a few interesting observations.

On how the Wolfram engine works, Spivack says:

Wolfram Alpha is like plugging into a vast electronic brain. It provides extremely impressive and thorough answers to a wide range of questions asked in many different ways, and it computes answers, it doesn’t merely look them up in a big database. … In this respect it is vastly smarter than (and different from) Google. Google simply retrieves documents based on keyword searches. Google doesn’t understand the question or the answer, and doesn’t compute answers based on models of various fields of human knowledge.

If this all sounds amazing, it undoubtedly is. But Spivack notes that people are unlikely to use Wolfram Alpha to shop for vacuum cleaner or find a date. Instead, Spivack says:

It is not a system that will understand the nuances of what you consider to be the perfect romantic getaway, for example–there is still no substitute for manual human-guided search for that. Where it appears to excel is when you want facts about something, or when you need to compute a factual answer to some set of questions about factual data.

Still, for those of us tired of hundreds of pages of results that do not really have a lot to do with what we are trying to find out, Wolfram Alpha may be what we have been waiting for. When we are doing serious research, a system that had some basic understanding of the question we are asking would be a welcome improvement indeed.

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