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Is Wolfram Alpha The Next Big Thing in Web Search?

Stephen Wolfram is a well-known figure in the sciences thanks to genius inventions like the math problem-solving software Mathematica. Now he's in the news again for a very different reason: He's trying to reinvent web search by making a smart "fact computer" engine. 

It's called Wolfram Alpha, and it's pretty much what you're thinking about right now: A computer program that, like the computers from a science-fiction movie, answers with the right facts when you ask it—think Hal 9000, or even KITT from Knight Rider. Wolfram is calling the technology a "computational knowledge engine" and it's designed to answer questions like "What's the 200th number in Pi?" and "What phase is the moon in right now?"

But apparently the system's not like previous efforts at this technology (ahem, Ask Jeeves), which use natural language parsing to determine your question and then simply present the web-search results. Instead Alpha is supposedly revolutionary since it actually computes the answer for you. Inside it has built-in models of how the world works in terms of science, geography, business, people and so on, and it interprets your question and uses its models to calculate an answer.

In fact what Wolfram and his team have done is, after a lot of research, broken down the problem (answering a fact-based question) into a series of small steps, each of which is reproducible and can be used for interpreting different types of question and finding the corresponding answers. And these steps have been programmed into the Mathematica computing engine, along with a natural language program and the "real world" database.

Google solves the problem in the opposite way, by simply searching (with some nifty algorithms, admittedly) the vast sea of websites and delivering a list of "matches." Alpha tries to understand what you mean, and then calculates the answer.

If that sounds weird, it is—at least a little. We're very used to our current way of interacting with web-based data, even though it's still very novel for us. The idea that a search engine needs to be wired to an electronic brain that tries to understand what you're asking before it goes and calculates the answer is strange. Particularly since Alpha seems like it's mainly designed to perform the missing task at the end of a Google search: taking all the matched web pages and compiling the data into a meaningful single answer.

And that, in fact, is probably the reason Alpha's won't be the "next big thing" in web searching for the average user when it's fully revealed in May. Although we obviously haven't used the service yet, the factual results it's designed to deliver seem like they're fairly easy to find with just a few clicks using current search technology. Unless you're talking about very very specific fact requests like "Is the Moon Io in transit across Jupiter's face when looking from Earth?" and you'd have to be a subject matter expert to have to care about that: Hence Alpha could end up with a following in the math and science fields, if it turns out to be a reliable and authoritative information source that accurately and succinctly returns information from its "curated" data.

The real revolution would be if Wolfram could expand the technology to compute the answers to "fuzzier" questions like "Do people like Robert Mugabe?" or "Is it warm in southern France this month?" But that's a far far trickier problem to solve.

[WolframAlpha via OutsideTheLines]