Wolfram Alpha – A Google Killer?

A brain child of Stephen Wolfram “ Wolfram Alpha “ is the latest to enter the enchanting web world. With an impressive list of characteristics it has the potential of playing an important role for the web world as Google, although for a different purpose. Not a “Google killer” it serves as an “answer engine” rather than a search engine.

A Computational Knowledge Engine for the Web

Built by Wolfram and his team it can be understood as “computational knowledge engine” for the Web. By that we mean that it lets you ask factual questions andlin turn computes answers for you.

Contradictory to Google It doesn’t simply return documents that (might) contain the answers neither is it a giant database of knowledge like the Wikipedia. Unlike Powerset it doesn’t simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents.

Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions — like questions that have factual answers such as “What is the location of Timbuktu?” or “How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?,” “What was the average rainfall in Boston last year?,” “What is the 307th digit of Pi?,” or “what would 80/20 vision look like?”

Lets just think about that for a minute. Wolfram Alpha is almost magical in giving you the answers. It doesn’t simply contain huge amounts of manually entered pairs of questions and answers, nor does it search for answers in a database of facts. Instead, it understands and then computes answers to certain kinds of questions.

What Makes It Work?

As a system for computing the answers to questions it uses built-in models of fields of knowledge, complete with data and algorithms, that represent real-world knowledge. For example, it contains formal models of much of what we know about science — massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties, as well as data about the physical world. Based on this you can ask it scientific questions and it can compute the answers for you even though it has not been programmed exclusively to answer each question you might ask it.

However it is not just confined to science but also knows about technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, music, and more.

Alpha does not answer natural language queries — you have to ask questions in a particular syntax, or various forms of abbreviated notation. This requires a little bit of learning, but it’s quite intuitive and in some cases even resembles natural language or the keywords we’re used to in Google.

How Does it Differ from Google?

Wolfram Alpha and Google are very different animals. Google is designed to help people find Web pages. It’s a big lookup system basically, a librarian for the Web. Wolfram Alpha is however not at all oriented towards finding Web pages, it’s for computing factual answers. It’s much more like a giant calculator for computing all sorts of answers to questions that involve or require numbers. Alpha is for calculating, not for finding. So it doesn’t compete with Google’s core business at all. It can in fact be regarded much more comptetive with the Wikipedia than with Google.

On the other hand, while Alpha doesn’t compete with Google, Google may compete with Alpha. Google is increasingly trying to answer factual questions directly — for example unit conversions, questions about the time, the weather, the stock market, geography, etc. But in this area, Alpha has a powerful advantage: it’s built on top of Wolfram’s Mathematica engine, which represents decades of work and is perhaps the most powerful calculation engine ever built. Profit By Search Experts believe that Wolfram Alpha is no competition to Google and people will love it for its capabilities.

Will it take the world by storm?

Wolfram Alpha is like plunging into a vast electronic brain. It provides extremely impressive and thorough answers to a wide range of questions asked in many different ways, and it computes answers, it doesn’t merely look them up in a big database.

In this respect it is vastly smarter than (and different from) Google. Google simply retrieves documents based on keyword searches. Google doesn’t understand the question or the answer, and doesn’t compute answers based on models of various fields of human knowledge.

But as intelligent as it seems, Wolfram Alpha is not HAL 9000, and it wasn’t intended to be. It doesn’t have a sense of self or opinions or feelings. It’s not artificial intelligence in the sense of being a simulation of a human mind. Instead, it is a system that has been engineered to provide really rich knowledge about human knowledge — it’s a very powerful calculator that doesn’t just work for math problems — it works for many other kinds of questions that have unambiguous (computable) answers.

There is no risk of Wolfram Alpha becoming too smart, or taking over the world. It’s good at answering factual questions; it’s a computing machine, a tool — not a mind. It can not reason.

The competitors ?

In response to Google as a system for FINDING things that we as a civilization collectively publish, Wolfram Alpha is an answer for COMPUTING answers to questions about what we as a civilization collectively know. It’s the next step in the distribution of knowledge and intelligence around the world — a new leap in the intelligence of our collective “Global Brain.” And like any big next-step, Wolfram Alpha works in a new way — it computes answers instead of just looking them up.

Wolfram Alpha, at its heart is quite different from a brute force statistical search engine like Google. And it is not going to replace Google — it is not a general search engine: 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. 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.

I think the folks at Google will be surprised by Wolfram Alpha, and they will probably want to own it, but not because it risks cutting into their core search engine traffic. Instead, it will be because it opens up an entirely new field of potential traffic around questions, answers and computations that you can’t do on Google today.

The services that are probably going to be most threatened by a service like Wolfram Alpha are the Wikipedia, Cyc, Metaweb’s Freebase, True Knowledge, the START Project, and natural language search engines (such as Microsoft’s upcoming search engine, based perhaps in part on Powerset‘s technology), and other services that are trying to build comprehensive factual knowledge bases.


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