WolframAlpha takes search in a whole new direction

Just the facts, Ma'am: WolframAlpha is less a search engine than an answer engine

After much online chatter and media buildup, WolframAlpha is up and running, promising to take online search in a whole new direction.

Not wanting to be called a search engine, Wolfram Research Inc., the folks behind WolframAlpha are calling their new service a computational knowledge engine. It's akin to a fact engine, a way to look for facts or stats.

WolframAlpha, which went live last Friday and is officially being launched today, can't tell you what's in a Denver omelette, the age of the Hubble Space Telescope, or the definition of RFID technology. Those answers are easily available using Google Search. What WolframAlpha will tell you is the population of Boston and probably your home town. It'll also tell you what the weather was in Portland, Me., on Jan. 26, 1967.

With WolframAlpha it's all about the stats ... and the facts and figures.

"Rather than just having a database, Alpha allows you to access it in a way that's not just raw data," said Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research. "Alpha will actually do the math, the computation, for you. A search engine searches for stuff that already exists. Any search engine or Google will not find something that doesn't exist yet. They index things that exist. Alpha constructs new information for you. It creates new Web pages that target answers to the queries you give it."

WolframAlpha isn't designed to give you a list of web pages to look through to find your answer. WolframAlpha is designed to calculate the answer for you.

Wolfram Research is the creator of Mathematica, an application popular in math, engineering and science circles. Mathematica gained its technical fame by its ability to do calculations in algebra, number theory and computational geometry.

The new search service uses the Mathematica engine, along with massive databases filled with what Gray says are several trillion individual data points. He calls it the "largest and most diverse collection of data" ever pulled together. WolframAlpha reportedly has loads of information about science and technology, and is beefing up its databases with information on many areas weather and automobiles.

"Wolfram is the most sophisticated attempt to date to give users a way of getting direct answers from the Internet, rather than to rely on it as a collection of possible answers," said Dan Olds, principal analyst with Gabriel Consulting Group, Inc. "Their technique is highly rigorous, which is good, and if they are successful, it may well change the way that many people use the internet."

Olds, though, said said that he is concerned about where the answers come from and whether they are correct. It's a control freak's nightmare.

"It's a black box in that we don't see how it comes up with the answers it delivers," he added. "You give it a query and it comes back with an answer, rather than a selection of places where the answer may reside - like a Google Search would. We all know from our experience on the Internet that you can find many different answers to the same question -- all purporting to be the right answer. We can look at each of them, evaluate them, and figure out which one we want to rely on. With Wolfram, it's a different story."

Olds said there's going to be some faith in accepting the answer. He noted that Wolfram does provide some source data, and it looks like they are combing through sources to determine answer validity. But, for him, he'll need the site to build up his trust.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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