Emerging web tool could rival Google

30 Apr 2009

A web tool known as Wolfram Alpha, which will be available to the public from May of this year, could cause a major upheaval in the way search engines operate and in the way computers interpret data.

The British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram is in the process of finishing his development of Wolfram Alpha, which siliconrepublic.com first reported on in March.

Wolfram Alpha is a free computational knowledge engine that aims to answer questions directly, rather than display webpages in response to a query — the way search engines like Google operate.

According to Wolfram, his new search engine development will be a “new paradigm for using computers and the web”.

In effect, a computational knowledge engine means that you can ask the web factual questions and it will compute answers for you.

Unlike Google or Yahoo!, which will display realms of pages in relation to a search-engine query, Wolfram Alpha will actually compute answers to a wide range of questions.

Speaking at a demonstration of Wolfram Alpha at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society on Tuesday, Wolfram said: “Our goal is to make expert knowledge accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

“Like interacting with an expert, it will understand what you’re talking about, do the computation, and then present you with the results.”

Wolfram Alpha will operate by taking raw data from public and licensed databases, plus live feeds.

People will also be solve complex mathematical equations, plot scientific figures or chart natural events. Much of the data will be scientific, but Wolfram Alpha will also have data on various areas, including technology, geography, business, the weather and the physical sciences.

Its language interface will also facilitate variations in how users pose their questions, ie via the use of abbreviations.

In his blog in March 2009, Wolfram stated: “I wasn’t at all sure it was going to work. But 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 amounts to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we’re actually managing to make it work.

“It’s going to be a website 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.

“We’re all working very hard right now to get Wolfram|Alpha ready to go live,” he concluded.

Wolfram’s own blog makes for pretty interesting reading. The Quest for Computable Knowledge — A Short Timeline is one to check out.

But what about questions that do not have any definite answers, such as in the area of philosophy, and how will Wolfram Alpha process them? We await its arrival with anticipation …

By Carmel Doyle

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic