What if you could just type a question in the search engines and someone knowledgeable at the “other end” reads your question and provides the exact answer instantly?
I can sense the disbelief writ large on your face and I admit nothing like that is happening.
But we are almost there….
There is this revolutionary new software that has the capacity to understand questions and return specific, tailored answers in a way that was never done before. This software is promising to shake up the Internet.
Is this new software better than the search engine giant, Google? Well, some do go to the extent of saying that the new system may just put Google and the other search engines in the shade.
Harvard University has taken the first step towards what many consider the Internet’s Holy Grail – a global information store that can understand languages and responds to them just as a person does.
Computer experts are excited at the prospect of the new search engine being evolutionary. They are sure that Wolfram Alpha, as it is called, has the potential of becoming as popular as Google but serving a different purpose.
Wolfram Alpha is not only programmed to give the correct and straight answer to a question but will also bring back a ‘neat’ page of related information. For example, if the question is, “How high is Mount Everest?” apart from the answer, it will also show the geographical location, other mountains, nearby towns etc. with the relevant charts and graphs. If you ask it to compare the height of two mountains, it will do that most accurately.
Wolfram’s inventor, Stephen Wolfram from the United States reveals that all the information is assessed by experts first. Wolfram’s team manually enters, and in certain cases automatically pulls in, masses of factual data in different fields, as well as models and algorithms for performing computations with this data. It allows anyone to construct their own computations just by asking questions. This eradicates any doubts or concerns on the accuracy of the information provided, which is the case with other sites like Wikipedia and the like. This software is based on Stephen’s Mathematika software and works by collecting the knowledge on the internet as well as some private databases.
One glaring difference between Google and Wolfram Alpha is that it demands citation when using any of the material from its results, whereas Google lets users do with the information “as they please.”
The long term plan of Wolfram is to serve as a knowledge engine, by providing a single reliable source for all systematic knowledge, where people can find definitive answers of maximum clarity to their factual queries.
People saying that it will shadow Google may not make much sense as it is incomparable to Google. Not that it is any better or worse, but what it offers is completely different. Google searches through web pages and brings back documents that may contain the answers, while Wolfram Alpha is a monstrous database of knowledge, which uses “clever algorithms and heuristics” to compute answers to a wide-range of questions by tapping into its enormous data collection.
Just try and understand the enormity of what Wolfram Alpha does. It computes the answers. It does not simply contain huge amounts of questions and answers entered manually, not does it search for answers in its database of facts. It actually understands what the person is asking and computes answers to specific questions. This makes it much smarter than Google and totally different too.
It works more like an enormous and accurate fact sheet, with the ability to give facts, like whether the Eiffel tower is taller than Petronas towers. You can even check out the nutritional content, including calories of any amount of any food. Mortgage payments can be calculated, equations and formulas can be solved, measurements can be converted, comparisons made and a whole lot of other intelligent and important stuff. Data such as weather and financial are streamed in dynamically, while other data is updated as it becomes available.
Wolfram Alpha is more of a go-to search tool for particular types of knowledge finding and will not be a place to find documents or articles. It belongs more in the toolkits of teachers and students. Although, currently, its strongest areas are where knowledge is more readily quantitative, experts at Wolfram note that they are working through all the content areas that are covered by handbooks, reference libraries and others.
One of the most beautiful features is that result pages can be downloaded onto your desktop as Live Mathematika pages or PDFs. Secondly, all the source information (Web-based and print) checked for that topic is included in link form at the bottom of the page. This allows further research if needed and for determining the accuracy of the results.
Wolfram Alpha could be huge and it remains to be seen if this electronic brain is the “answer” to the future. It would be interesting to see how smart Wolfram Alpha actually is or how much smarter it can get. Will it make mistakes? Since it is in the initial phase, what forms of knowledge will it handle in the future? These questions remain to be answered. But one thing that is sure is that you would still need Google to shop for a new house, find content on the Web or look up a romantic getaway for two. Wolfram does not understand love! But it does understand way better than any other search engine, the importance of factual data.