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The new way to search (ish)

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 22nd May 2009

I have been alive for 9,471 days and share the same birth date as Blue singer Lee Ryan – the 17th June (yes, just round the corner), which incidentally, was 168th day of the year in 1983 when the sun set at 9.20pm and there was a waxing crescent moon.

And you would be quick to ask: what does this mean and why I’m writing about it?

But the right question to ask is how I know this useless information. And the answer to that is through the internet’s latest Google-killer: Wolfram|Alpha (I’m not sure if the vertical line is obligatory, but included it just in case!).

The computational knowledge engine Wolfram|Alpha was launched this week to the usual flurry of media attention whenever a ‘Google-killer’ comes along. Despite the rather strange moniker (named after the creators, Wolfram Research, in turn named after British businessman Stephen Wolfram), the search engine is seen by many as the way the web in going. The semantic web.

Others far more wise than me have described in detail how the site works:

“It doesn’t mine the Web for pre-existing facts. It mines limited databases that the Wolfram Alpha team has amassed, curated and vetted for accuracy. Then it performs computations on those facts, giving you new, original data. Makers say it’s a Web engine that “answers questions.”

And many have poured scorn on the site (which is clearly still short of a lot of data). And not surprisingly, The Register has questioned its usefulness:

“I know that in evaluating a Stephen Wolfram production, my meager intelligence quotient may not be sufficient to grasp the gravity of what I’m dealing with. So I don’t feel all that put down that I can’t figure out how Alpha is useful to anyone outside of a small audience of college professors and professional engineers.”

This strikes me as unfair. I can certainly see a use case for a data bank of knowledge that deals in facts (unlike Google) that are credible and reliable (unlike Wikipedia).

And calling the service a Google-killer is way off the mark too as Andy Heaps from Latitude explains:

“Wolfram Alpha couldn’t help me in finding cheaper car insurance. However, when I needed to know the number of vertices of a truncated icosahedron it did the job brilliantly! That optimises everything about the perception of Wolfram Alpha – it’s not a Google killer, it’s not a Google competitor, and was probably never meant to be – its self-proclaimed long term goal is to make ‘all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone’.”

So, it’s got some way to go. It’s not Google, or Wikipedia and has some early detractors…

Seems like one to watch!