Meet Wolfram Alpha, Google’s latest challenger

Next month, British mathematician Stephen Wolfram launches the internet's most ambitious search engine since Google. It might not be blessed with the catchiest name in tech-biz, but according to believers WolframAlpha will change the very game of Internet search. Cynics, however, are calling it a colossal act of scientific hubris, a stunt that could still end in disaster.
Pre-release images of the WolframAlpha search page show something that looks deceptively like a simple search box, and a clickable search button. That's where the similarity ends.

Google retrieves results by trawling the Web, comparing search terms with website content and displaying pages that match. Google doesn't understand our search; nor can it provide any information that hasn't already been published by a third party. In other words, it can answer only the questions that have already been asked, and answered, by content providers and Web publishers.

Stephen Wolfram describes WolframAlpha as a "computational knowledge engine". Not only does it understand the question, it has the mathematical, computational ability to work out an accurate answer. It's primed to answer factual questions related to financial and economic statistics, cooking, geography and much more, questions that haven't necessarily been answered by somebody else. Wherever there's data to be demanded, computed and served, WolframAlpha will, if all goes to plan, be there.

At its philosophical heart is Wolfram's theory (explored in his controversial book A New Kind Of Science) that scientific problems can be reduced to a series of "simple programs". But its engineering heart is Mathematica, maths computer software devised by Wolfram in the late 1980s and continuously developed by Wolfram Research ever since. Within Mathematica are all the "simple programs", theorems and systems to convert raw data into useful answers to real-life questions. If WolframAlpha works, it will be seen as practical validation of the Wolfram approach to science... as well as one of the most ambitious internet launches ever.

Stephen Wolfram has managed to keep more than a hundred "knowledge aggregators" secret while they've worked to collate the world's information, sucking factual knowledge from the Web into a giant electronic collective brain containing everything everybody knows. And because WolframAlpha is aimed at the general internet user, it's also had to learn a system of semantics, so that it can understand the "natural language" used by you or me when we ask it a question.

The concept is very appealing; partly because it¹s so close to the way we used to imagine computers, back in the 1950s and 60s: all-knowing intellectual servants, like Hal, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, in reality, how will WolframAlpha stay on top of ever-changing and expanding information? Google copes with around two billion search requests a day; how many will the WolframAlpha servers handle before they collapse under the pressure? Most important, how will WolframAlpha's reputation hold up after a single incorrect answer? Will we forgive it the way we forgive, say, Wikipedia, its gaffes?

Expect the media ­ - obsessed as it is with finding a contender pugnacious enough to knock Google from its perch ­ - to focus on WolframAlpha's relationship with the big boys from Mountain View. But really the two will perform entirely different functions. Google's job is to search what we publish, WolframAlpha's to compute what we know.

So, for interesting and opinionated editorial about the causes of and cure for the current recession, Google will continue to lead the way. If you need to know highly defined and tailored economic data ­ the relationship, say, between average US house prices and GDP ­ you might choose WolframAlpha for your data-crunching needs.

The big question is whether WolframAlpha will live up to its rapidly growing expectations... whether it will support Stephen Wolfram's controversial mathematical modeling theories, or turn out to be a quick and ignominious flop.

WolframAlpha launches in May 2009, at

BY Linton Chiswick



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