Stephen's Wolfram Alpha: snake oil or Skynet?

In Monday's IT Blogwatch, Richi Jennings watches the blog-hype around a new type of search engine -- one that doesn't search. Not to mention mixing YouTube...

Justin Sorkin reports:

Wolfram logo
Stephen Wolfram is now gearing up to unveil his "unbelievable knowledge search engine" called Wolfram Alpha ... Widely known for his works in theoretical particle physics, cosmology, cellular automata, complexity theory, and computer algebra, the British physicist, mathematician and software entrepreneur ... is expected to reveal his latest creation in May.

According to Stephen Wolfram, Wolfram Alpha search engine will be different from Google and other search engines. Wolfram Alpha will offer exact answer, instead of showing up the links to pages that may (or may not) contain the answer, like Google and other search engines. It'll be like typing a question and getting the right answer.
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Matt Marshall adds:

Wolfram Alpha ... apparently can compute answers to factual questions more powerfully than Google ... The effort ... has taken years of working in stealth and involves more than a hundred workers ... You ask it factual questions (such as “How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?”), and it computes answers for you.

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The engine doesn’t return documents that might contain the answer, like Google does, and it isn’t a giant database, like Wikipedia. Nor does it resort to natural language to return documents, like Powerset does. Rather, Wolfram ... has created a proprietary system based on fields of knowledge, containing terabytes of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms to represent real-world knowledge as we know it.
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Nova Spivack is excited:

In a nutshell, Wolfram and his team have built what he calls a "computational knowledge engine" for the Web ... Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions -- like questions that have factual answers such as "What is the location of Timbuktu?" ... [it] doesn't simply contain huge amounts of manually entered pairs of questions and answers.

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It uses built-in models of fields of knowledge, complete with data and algorithms, that represent real-world knowledge. For example, it contains formal models of much of what we know about science -- massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties, as well as data about the physical world ... [But] there is no risk of Wolfram Alpha becoming too smart, or taking over the world.
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But Jon "Hannibal" Stokes cannibalizes the news:

Wolfram can fairly claim to have revolutionized the math software niche with the 1988 launch of Mathematica ... [but] I haven't read anything that thoroughly immodest and improbable since suffering through the opening pages of Dianetics ... Wolfram really does make a set of claims for his work that are up there with those of Hubbard on the "this science that I have privately devised has finally solved some of humanity's millennia-old problems" scale.

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Any good humanist, scientist, or journalist knows how hard it is just to assemble a reliable and relevant set of facts, much less to take the next step and synthesize those facts into understanding, and then communicate that understanding to an interested reader. I expect that the May launch of Wolfram's service will remind everyone who overestimates the power of computers that this process is not something that can be automated.
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Owen Thomas is also true to form:

Grandiosely ambitious, and grandiosely inexplicable ... The blogosphere has exploded in a jargongasm.

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In the tradition of the great French encyclopédistes of the 18th century, his Wolfram Research has employed in stealth dozens of brainiacs translating specialized databases into machine-computable form. His approach is a riposte to both Google's idolization of algorithms and the fetish for crowdsourcing that swept Silicon Valley in the middle of this decade. Sometimes the best way to get an answer is to ask someone really smart. Like the Wizard of Oz, Wolfram's researchers lie behind the curtain of the answers Wolfram Alpha will provide. How comforting.
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Craig Calef wonders:

And by "Wolfram Research Alpha" we mean "Cyberdyne Systems Skynet." Could this be the AI knowledge base we've dreamed of? Flying cars next?
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But George Papadakis has seen it all before:

If you can't wait for Wolfram, give START a try.
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And finally...


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Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/adviser/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and spam. A 23 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. You can follow him on Twitter, pretend to be Richi's friend on Facebook, or just use boring old email: blogwatch@richi.co.uk.

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