Wolfram Alpha: First Look

18 May 2009

Following the soft launch of new search engine Wolfram Alpha last week, it has officially launched today with much positive feedback from excited testers, but will this new search tool be Google’s eventual replacement?

This is a question that cannot be answered, at least not right now. We are surely in the early stages of what Wolfram Alpha will eventually become, but this search tool is not in fact a search engine in the correct sense of the term; it is a computational knowledge engine, and it is all about finding singular answers as opposed to retrieving a body of search results.

Wolfram Alpha represents the first wave of ‘intelligent’, ‘thinking’ computational search, but it is not targeting Google. The tool aims to replace the Google search engine no more than a dictionary aims to replace a thesaurus: they are both sources of data, but serve different purposes (for now).

While Google still remains the best indexer of the length and breadth of the world wide web, what Wolfram Alpha is doing is setting out to give you one definitive answer.

As Wolfram Alpha is the creation of Dr Stephen Wolfram, the man behind computational software Mathematica, this search engine’s strength lies in numbers, stats, graphs and solving mathematical equations.

It will truly become the homepage for many a student, researcher, marketer and stats geek.

Testing out Wolfram Alpha makes you realise how pervasive numbers are in our everyday life, and how easy it will become to visit this ‘computational knowledge engine’ for all our needs.

While we need not always know the square root of 126736 (356, in case you were wondering) you will find yourself looking for the conversion rates for euros to dollars, comparison of Microsoft versus Apple stocks, all relevant stats for a particular city or a compilation of facts and figures for a certain date in time.

This can all be done in natural language, for example, keying in ‘40 euros in dollars’ will give you the conversion instantly, along with a graph of the exchange history and the options of converting to other currencies.

However, a keystroke gone awry, and my ‘eruo’ instead of ‘euro’, and Wolfram Alpha did not understand me. Google it ain’t.

The stats, calculations, graphs and so on span a huge array of topics, from chemistry, astronomy and life sciences to units & measures, organisations, colours and word & linguistics.

I shouldn’t tell you this, but it’s a great cheat for the frustrated crossword aficionado: if you type in ‘_h___ed’, it will give you a list of all words that fit this pattern.

Typing in a single word will bring up a definition, thesaurus and origins, as well as a graphical representation of synonyms.

Here is the search engine that teachers, students and lovers of knowledge have been waiting for.

To see the full extent of this free fountain of knowledge, visit www42.wolframalpha.com/gallery.html for some good graphical examples.

Marie Boran