Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wolfram Alpha Unveiled

Back at the end of March I posted about Wolfram Alpha. Last week Dr. Stephen Wolfram, the inventor and creator of Wolfram Alpha, unveiled the first working demo of what is being heralded as possibly the most important technological invention of the the last decade.

At the Harvard University showcase, the renowned Particle Physicist showed the scientific community what is refereed to as an "answer engine" or "knowledge engine", rather than a search engine. It provides users with the function of typing a question and being given an answer. Bare in mind, that's an answer and not a list of websites. As such Wolfram Alpha is not what is being termed a Google-killer. It really isn't in direct competition with Google at all.

Part of the demonstration saw Dr. Wolfram enter various questions or queries, each to complete success. For example, when he entered 'Weather Oakland, California' the knowledge engine immediately came back with a full breakdown of weather patterns for the region over the previous 10 years.

After the showcase Tom Simpson, noted Digital Marketer, said: "What are the wider implications exactly? A new paradigm for using computers and the web? Probably. Emerging artificial intelligence and a step towards a self-organising internet? Possibly... I think this could be big."

Wolfram Alpha is perched on the crest of a wave with the potential to wash across the world changing the way we access and search information. Foremost the system's potential is its ability to compute answers "on the fly" (according to Dr. Wolfram), giving it the ability to tackle new questions that it has never seen before. This in turn gives it the ability to 'learn', producing faster results the next time that question, or one similar, is asked. The knock-on effect of how Wolfram Alpha 'learns' could be the first real steps towards artificial intelligence.

A key differentiator between the way in which Wolfram Alpha accesses information, how Google does it and how Wikipedia does it, is in the way the information is managed. Wikipedia is based on a user generated system that is moderated, edited and compiled by the public itself. In theory the information is correct due to collective input, however on niche topics it is not always the most reliable source. Google on the other hand uses bots and spiders to crawl the web and determine what it is that is on a webpage. This system is limited in that any information stored in exotic formats or within images is inaccessible to Google and it relies heavily on what the creator has 'tagged' the information as. Wolfram Alpha on the other hand will operate as a 'curated' system. It will rely on a team of up to 1,000 experts to assess if the information Wolfram Alpha is drawing on is indeed correct. Beyond this, the system is heavily based on Dr. Wolfram's award-winning Mathematica software, which is used everyday by scientists, engineers and mathematicians around the world.

Interestingly, Dr. Wolfram hasn't however ruled out any strategic alliances with these or other internet businesses, saying, "We're working to partner with all possible organisations that make sense; Search, narrative, news are complementary to what we have. Hopefully there will be some great synergies." He also confirmed that the system will utilise Wikipedia's popularity index to determine what users are likely to be referring to, when it comes to pop culture based questions.


Kevin Dunne said...

Hi Christian, great post. I haven't come across Wolfram Alpha before.

When you think Google's mission statement is to organise the world's information, you would imagine this is something that would greatly interest them.

I wonder will Google shelve their rumoured bid for twitter, especially with Apple now in the frame, and look more closely at Wolfram Alpha.

Christian Hughes said...

Very good point Kevin - I know Dr. Wolfram (what a cool name by the way) said that strategic alliances weren't out of the question but I think Google are more of a takeover company. I don't see him letting this go in that way.

I guess we'll just have to stay tuned. I can't wait till it goes live.