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WolframAlpha Goes Live, Changes Search Forever

Gordon Kelly


WolframAlpha Goes Live, Changes Search Forever

When it comes to Internet Search engines a single name rules them all (I'm not spelling it out) but there's more than one way to skin a cat...

Enter stage right 'WolframAlpha' a "computational knowledge engine" described by its creator British physicist Stephen Wolfram as "the first step in an ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone." WolframAlpha was first announced in March, went live for testing over the weekend and has begun its full roll out today.

Unlike Google, what WolframAlpha (also written as Wolfram Alpha and Wolfram|Alpha) does is structure statistical information into readable, comparable data. Think complex mathematical questions/formulas, stock comparison, geographical information, dates, chemistry, engineering, finance, distances. In essence, anything you can put your mind to.

For example, something simple such as London to Sydney will bring up the distance, flight times, a geographic map, times currently in both places, city populations and approximate elevations. Enter a date, say 1 April 1970 and you'll get the time difference from today down to the exact day, its position in the year, a list of holidays or major observances, notable events/birthdays, daylight information and even the phase of the moon.

From here we can get advanced math or even fun trivia such as asking How tall is the Eiffel Tower compared to the Statue of Liberty? which provides the height of both buildings individually then visual indications, ratios and comparisons. Name searches? Gordon pulls up its rank, the number of people named it per year (just 194 in the US, go me!), tables charting its popularity in the last 100 years, the total number of Gordons alive today, their expected population fraction and name rank - even their estimated current age.

In fact, we're just scratching the surface of WolframAlpha here and if there is a downside currently to the project it is that it takes a bit of practice in learning how to phrase things so the engine understands. Of course with time both you and the engine itself will improve and Wolfram Alpha isn't verbose, it likes stats not sentences so we are looking at something to complement existing web search engines, not replace them.

That said, there remains no doubt Wolfram Alpha represents a quantum leap forward in compiling data and the next time I need cold hard facts I suspect it is Wikipedia, not Google, which might feel the pinch...

For more - and trust me there is a lot more - I suggest, nay insist, you to take a spare 13 minutes 23 seconds and watch the WolframAlpha Introductory Video. Trust me, it'll blow your mind.

Update: WolframAlpha is loaded with so called 'Easter Eggs' - fun answers to light hearted questions. For example: Why did the chicken cross the road? Good luck finding others!


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May 18, 2009, 6:09 am

this is to put it simply amazing


May 18, 2009, 9:52 am

Asking it "What is the meaning of life?" returned "42" which really just confirmed my own suspicions. Thanks Deep Thought, ahem, I mean, Wolfram Alpha :)


May 18, 2009, 4:39 pm

Today might my nightmare of the machines taking over inches one step closer to reality. Seriously this is could be the start of next gen knowledge based systems. Interesting point about encroaching on wikipedia, same for IMDB. Or financial sites - well just about any site with statistics. I guess it depends on who owns the data sources or how the data is collected.


May 18, 2009, 6:16 pm

While the video is impressive, anything I try to look up, whether simple or complex, just comes back blank so I think it's got a way to go yet.


May 18, 2009, 6:39 pm

@Xiphias - did you watch the video? I found that a great way to learn how to find what you want.

Also remember, while it is early days we all had a similar experience with search engines when they first appeared. We had to learn quotation marks, plus symbols etc to refine our searches. WolframAlpha is just the same - it simply takes a bit of practice.


May 19, 2009, 1:43 am

its very slow today think everyone is trying it out as it was pretty quick during the night, I've too had quite a few blank pages as if it had given up trying to work it out.

the video was very good definitely worth a watch.

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