Wolfram Alpha Could Answer Questions that Google Can't

Mar 09, 2009 by Lisa Zyga weblog
Wolfram Alpha will be launching in May.

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new search engine described as an "electronic brain" could make searching the Internet more intelligent. Called Wolfram Alpha, the search engine computes its own answers rather than looking them up in a large database, as Google and many other search engines currently do. With its computational abilities, Wolfram Alpha could lead to new types of questions, answers and computations that today's search engines can't handle.

Wolfram Alpha is being developed by , best known as the creator of the Mathematica, with more than 100 people working on the project. The designers plan to launch the this May.

As Wolfram explained, 50 years ago people assumed "that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question and have it compute the answer." Building such a computer has proven to be more difficult than originally thought, but the developers think they have finally created a system to handle semantic requests - asked in plain human language.

One person, Nova Spivack, the CEO of Radar Networks, which developed the semantic Web-based Twine application, had the chance to try out . As Spivack explained, "You can ask it scientific questions and it can compute the answers for you. Even if it has not been programmed explicitly to answer each question you might ask it."

According to Spivack, Alpha can about technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, and music. It can also solve novel numeric sequencing problems and calculus problems, and answer questions about the human genome. And, importantly, Alpha gives one answer - not one million ad-sponsored web pages.

When it comes to factual information, computing answers with algorithms is a much more compact technique than simply storing all the possible answers to all possible questions in a . The algorithms don't take up as much space as the database, making computation more efficient for handling large amounts of factual data.

Wolfram Alpha's interface is simple, Spivack said, and provides detailed answers with text, diagrams, and graphs. However, he noted that the average user may feel overwhelmed by the overly comprehensive answers. Still, the tool could be invaluable for academics, researchers, students, government employees, journalists and a broad range of professionals in all fields who need factual answers to straightforward questions.

"Wolfram Alpha, at its heart, is quite different from a brute force statistical search engine like Google," Spivack said. "And it is not going to replace Google - it is not a general search engine," he said, adding that content sites like Wikipedia are more similar to Alpha than Google is.

"You would probably not use Wolfram Alpha to shop for a new car, find blog posts about a topic, or to choose a resort for your honeymoon," he said. "It is not a system that will understand the nuances of what you consider to be the perfect romantic getaway, for example - there is still no substitute for manual human-guided search for that. Where it appears to excel is when you want facts about something, or when you need to compute a factual answer to some set of questions about factual data."

Because of its ability to understand natural human language (as opposed to keywords), Wolfram Alpha could potentially be integrated with the - a futuristic version of the Web in which computers can understand information meant for humans. Currently, Wolfram Alpha works independently from the Semantic Web. But, as Spivack suggests, it could be beneficial to one day link to other semantic applications to make it easier to share knowledge.

For now, it's too early to tell if Wolfram Alpha will revolutionize search engines, or if it's just mostly hype. In any case, the technology will likely lead to more questions about the future of computers, Spivack said.

"It is ironic that a system like Wolfram Alpha, which is designed to answer questions factually, will probably bring up a broad range of questions that don't themselves have unambiguous factual answers - questions about philosophy, perspective, and even public policy in the future (if it becomes very widely used)," he said. "It is a system that has the potential to touch our lives as deeply as Google. Yet how widely it will be used is an open question too."

More information:
Twine.com (Nova Spivack)

© 2009 PhysOrg.com

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User comments : 17

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4.6 / 5 (7) Mar 09, 2009
This could be a very interesting development. I use Wolfram Mathematica extensively. It is extremely powerful but is not very user friendly and has a very steep learning curve. If this is a user friendly front end for Mathematica it is going to be a major step forward. I am looking forward to giving this system a good workout.
1.4 / 5 (10) Mar 09, 2009
this could be a piece of crap
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 09, 2009
My first question will be "Can Wolfram Alpha answer questions that Google can't?"
3.3 / 5 (4) Mar 09, 2009
Could be interesting if it stays clean of advertising and spam. It would certainly outmatch google in some aspects if it does what they say it will do.

Google's results have become overly polluted with sites that don't offer actual content, but rank high because of linkbuilding and other crap. If they keep WA uninvolved advertising wise, they could in time offer, at least for some types of searches, a much cleaner alternative.

It all depends on the algorithms that will go into it as well I guess.
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 09, 2009
It should probably give more then one answer. I could see it giving 5 different answers from seperate perspectives as being very handy for a program like this...
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 09, 2009
Who on Earth is going to type "wolframalpha.com" into their browser? Maybe they have a shot if it's renamed "wolf.com". Wasn't that wiki search thing supposed to be the next best thing? I thought so. Get serious people.
3 / 5 (3) Mar 09, 2009
Ah, some of us have known of Stephen Wolfram for far longer than G00gle and with greater trust. I do hope that Alpha stays free of marketeers.

The truth doesn't need balancing with multiple POV.
4.8 / 5 (5) Mar 09, 2009
'Who on Earth is going to type "wolframalpha.com" into their browser?'

Anyone that type. You seem to have the capacity. You only have to type it once. Apparently while you can type you have yet to learn how to bookmark. Wolfram won't be able to help you with that but the HELP in your browser can.

For those hoping for no advertising. Are you planning to pay a fee?

3.5 / 5 (2) Mar 09, 2009
This looks very cool. Looking forward to seeing exactly what it does...
4.3 / 5 (3) Mar 10, 2009
Does this Alpha get its data from the internet? Not much detail in this article. I assume it figures out the context and then gathers that data from the web??

So this is sorta like a self assembling wiki page per question?
3.3 / 5 (3) Mar 10, 2009
Conflating advertising with marketeering and capitalism with conservatism? Sharpen up now.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 10, 2009
Out of curiosity Doug where did you see anything about conservatism or marketeering? Except in your own posts that is.

not rated yet Mar 10, 2009
If it follows up questions with more questions in some cases then I think it will be a vary handy learning tool. I'll mark it with a tick - it's a step forward, but I wouldn't ask it an opinion, it might megabite.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2009
Someone pointed out this link:


Looks like the same deal basically, being developed since 1993 by MIT.
not rated yet Mar 10, 2009
Companies have been claiming to have done this for years. Of course none of them have ever made a semantic based search engine reliable and efficient enough to be of any use to the public sector. This will be great if it works, but I, for one, will have my doubts until its release in May.

As for the MIT search engine ealex reminded us of...I've been testing that out and it seems to only search a few websites over and over again. This would be fine if these few websites contained the answer to everything, but they don't. Therefore, "Start" (as it is named) will say very nicely that it was not told the answer to your question if these few websites do not contain it.
2.5 / 5 (2) Mar 10, 2009
This isn't going to happen. Wolfram reveals his insecurities and ego by putting his name on these over hyped and over priced products. I am still mad that I bought this guy's grossly over-hyped book for a ridiculous amount of money that I couldn't really afford, but I trusted the hype.
not rated yet Mar 21, 2009
from http://isontech.b...ine.html

Could it be that Wolfram Alfa has done the following create "contexts" or domains of information with reusable calculation modules based on celluar automata?

We often think of math something we have invented to explain the universe based on emperical evidence but in fact if you drop enough matches on a table you will find the number Pi which leads to the calculated answer of a circle. This intersection between math and cellular automata in this way leads to an answer to the circumference of the earth. So by putting a natural language processor on top and grabbing the implied context(s) and deviations you could skip the math part and vary the bottom layer algorithms of the physical universe to calculate the answer. In other words somebody asks for the distance of flight from Madrid to Sydney and instead of calculating the arc via mathemtical formula you start dropping sticks or some reduced mini celluar automata.

Lets say you want to know how strong the TV signal is in a valley. First you figure out the domain which in this case is radio waves and transmission. Youget the relevant input like radio tower locations and terrain but then you dont use Maxwells Equations you use the fact that space is 3 dimensional and that something must spread from here to there. You include the terrain in the model and calculate and calculate and drop lower order terms.

So we can think of the stack the normal way we deal with stuff as:

1) Ideas

2) Language

3) Physics and Empirically Observed Results (Theory)


4) Cellular Automata of the Universe

Wolfram Alfa seems to cutout the middle and deal with it this way:



3)Cellular Automata of the Universe

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