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March 10, 2009

Hey Hey it's the Wolfram ( Wolfram Alpha)

Wolfram Alpha is coming, and it might be bigger and better than Google.

Google is about search. You specify words you want to look for, and Google returns lists of webpage that include those words. Ask Jeeves claims to be about questions, but it really parses questions and then runs a search. You specify a question you'd like to ask, and Ask Jeeves returns a list of pages that may contain an answer.
Wolfram Alpha (as opposed to Beta) isn't Search; Wolfram is about Computing. When you ask Wolfram a question, it tries to compute (that is, to figure out) the answer. If they can do this, it's huge.
wolfram alpha

What's the difference between Search and Compute? Say you want to solve up a multiplication problem: What is 6 times 8? If you solution is Search-based, you find a chart of multiplication values, you look up 6 times 8, and your return a list of places to probably find results to the user. It's a solution, but it's not a very elegant solution. Compute says, figure out how to solve multiplication questions, and work the process, and calculate the result - give the user the answer.

If your "need" is 6x8, Search is adequate. If your need is 123456 x 987653, then Search is inadequate and Compute is the solution to your need. Google is a search engine; Wolfram is a knowledge engine.

This is the stuff of what computers promised to be fifty years ago (Hello, Vannevar! We're getting closer to 1950!) when the thought was, you could go up to a computer and ask, "What is the current phase of the moon", "What is the atomic weight of hydrogen", and the computer would actually answer the question. The key point is it's not a database of answers to all possible questions - it's a system of symbolic processes that solve questions expressed in language.

If what you want is to find a "Pittsburgh metric widget shop", then Search and Google will meet your need. But if what you want is an answer to a question - who won the battle of Waterloo?, then Compute and Wolfram may be the better tool. Why? Because if you're starting off with a question, rather than a need to find a list of locations, what you really want is an answer.

Stephen WolframStephen Wolfram (blog) earned Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Caltech in 1979 when he was 20. In 1988 he launched Mathematica, powerful computational and visualization software that has become the gold standard in its field. In 2002, Wolfram produced a 1,280-page monster of a book, A New Kind of Science (NKS), based on a decade of exploration in cellular automata and complex systems. Wired profile of S.Wolfram

Having said all that - and I believe Wolfram is a genius, and he hasn't failed to deliver on a promise yet, and it's likely he's got something very interesting - let me say that I also remember the pre-rollout hype for Dean Kamen's device that was going to "sweep over the world and change lives", the Segway. I'm not sure the pre-rollout hype was justified there, and we'll have to see what really happens with Wolfram Alpha.

EDIT: Segway tours in Pittsburgh are available at Station Square, I'm taking my 8th grader there in the spring. /EDIT

But the big money and the big development is not going to be in the front end that they're rolling out in May. The truly big innovation is going to be the symbolic architecture they're developed for the various bodies of knowledge, and if they're managed to design one uber-schema then it's going to be a significant intellectual achievement. If it finds general acceptance, it will have remarkable economic impact. It's significant that this is a proprietary and not an open-source project.

If nothing else, the Wolfram Alpha home page is even cleaner than Google's home page.


Lady Elaine said...

Your post reminded me of an old Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movie--"Desk Set." Tracy is an efficiency expert brought in by the company to install a computer at a TV research department, where these women all worked. It threatens to take their job away.

I was struck by your thoughts on search vs compute. The computer would "search" for an answer, but the women had the ability to "compute" for one, ultimately leading to the demise of the computer (I'm pretty sure).

And isn't the segway tech in the Wii?

I know at Ross Park Mall, the Segway is used by the Mall Guards. It cracks me up!!! I think about a kid stealing a pair of jeans and running like crazy, but a mall guard riding his segway really slow yelling at the kid to stop instead of getting off and running.

Anyway, just some thoughts. I really really like your blog. Thanks.

Vannevar said...

Hello, Lady Elaine, thanks for the comment.

I remember that movie, it was excellent - and they ended recognizing that the people were more important than the machine.

Thanks for the Segway mind-jostle, when I read it I remembered there's a Segway tour outfit at Station Square, and I edited the post to mention that. Cheers, Vannevar.

Lady Elaine said...

I can't believe you saw that movie!! I love old movies. I got sucked into it a while ago when I actually had cable and those channels were on basic.

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