Wolfram Alpha Looks To Expand Field Of Knowledge

The physicist behind the Wolfram Alpha search engine said Thursday his team is working to ensure its software can respond to questions across a much broader field of knowledge than it currently can.
Stephen Wolfram said his "computational knowledge engine" is increasingly becoming more sophisticated and has access to a growing number of data sources so that it can provide answers to a much wider range of financial, historical, political and socioeconomic questions posed by users.

The push to expand its scope of knowledge will help correct a key weakness of Wolfram Alpha, which some have speculated could one day challenge search leader Google Inc. (GOOG)

Google accounts for a 64% share of U.S. searches and some have argued that it is unlikely any rival will be able to challenge its market dominance. But that hasn't stopped others from trying. Earlier this week, software giant Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) launched its revamped search engine, dubbed Bing, in a bid to drive advertising revenue growth.

Wolfram Alpha's launch last month was marred by technical glitches and widespread disappointment that the engine was too focused on scientific data to appeal to the general audience that uses Google.

For example, it can spit out the boiling point of magnesium (1,994 degrees Fahrenheit) or estimate the number of stars in the observable universe (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 give or take a few), but it doesn't know how many times the New England Patriots have played in the Super Bowl.

Wolfram, founder of Champaign, Ill.-based Wolfram Research Inc., the company behind the new software, said in a Webcast on Thursday that his team was trying to understand why the knowledge engine hasn't been able to answer some queries and to figure out how to make it work better.

"It has humans in the loop trying to make it smarter," he said. "We're not going to let Wolfram Alpha loose to let it learn on its own. Too many things can go wrong that way."

Wolfram also said his team is tapping additional databases containing financial information, historical affairs, real estate trends, weather data, real-time flight tracking, obituaries and local data. He said users have requested more legal and bibliographic information.

Wolfram again downplayed suggestions his software was a rival to traditional search engines from Google, Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) or Microsoft. He noted that Wolfram Alpha doesn't provide users with relevant Web links like most search engines do, but rather crunches data from a series of databases and provides answers to questions users have asked.

Wolfram also said the company was working to develop premium subscription services, such as allowing corporations to crunch their data with Wolfram Alpha's software. He added that the company would continue to make a casual version widely available for free.

Google declined to comment.

BY Scott Morrison
Source:The Wall Street Journal

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