Wolfram Alpha: Next major search breakthrough?

Stephen Wolfram has come up with a new and potentially revolutionary search paradigm for finding answers via the Web.

Wolfram Research

Stephen Wolfram has a track record of scientific breakthroughs and some controversy. He received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Caltech in 1979 when he was 20 and has focused most of his career on probing complex systems. In 1988 he launched Mathematica, powerful computational software that has become the gold standard in its field. In 2002, Wolfram produced a 1,280-page tome, A New Kind of Science, based on a decade of exploration in cellular automata and complex systems. The book stirred up a lot of debate in scientific circles. Legendary physicist Freeman Dyson described the tome as "a case of style over substance." (See Steven Levy's Wired profile of Wolfram).

In May, Wolfram will unveil his latest creation, now called Wolfram Alpha. It applies his work with Mathematica and NKS (A New Kind of Science) to Web search. "All one needs to be able to do is to take questions people ask in natural language, and represent them in a precise form that fits into the computations one can do," Wolfram said in a recent blog post. "I'm happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we're actually managing to make it work...It's going to be a website: www.wolframalpha.com. With one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms," he added.

It follows the Google principle, with a simple input box, but takes a different approach to rendering search results. Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks, which developed Twine, an ambitious "interest network" Web application based on semantic Web technologies, said that Wolfram Alpha may be as "important for the Web (and the world) as Google, but for a different purpose."

Spivack shared his initial impressions of Wolfram Alpha based on a two-hour conversation with Wolfram.

"Wolfram Alpha is like plugging into a vast electronic brain. It provides extremely impressive and thorough answers to a wide range of questions asked in many different ways, and it computes answers, it doesn't merely look them up in a big database."

"In this respect it is vastly smarter than (and different from) Google. Google simply retrieves documents based on keyword searches. Google doesn't understand the question or the answer, and doesn't compute answers based on models of various fields of human knowledge."

Spivack gave some insight as to how the Wolfram's search engine works:

Wolfram Alpha is a system for computing the answers to questions. To accomplish this 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.

Based on this you can ask it scientific questions and it can compute the answers for you. Even if it has not been programmed explicity to answer each question you might ask it.

But science is just one of the domains it knows about--it also knows about technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, music, and more.

It also has a natural language interface for asking it questions. This interface allows you to ask questions in plain language, or even in various forms of abbreviated notation, and then provides detailed answers.

The vision seems to be to create a system which can do for formal knowledge (all the formally definable systems, heuristics, algorithms, rules, methods, theorems, and facts in the world) what search engines have done for informal knowledge (all the text and documents in various forms of media).

Wolfram's engine isn't going to replace Google, according to Spivack, although he suggests Google would like to own it.

"You would probably not use Wolfram Alpha to shop for a new car, find blog posts about a topic, or to choose a resort for your honeymoon. It is not a system that will understand the nuances of what you consider to be the perfect romantic getaway, for example--there is still no substitute for manual human-guided search for that. Where it appears to excel is when you want facts about something, or when you need to compute a factual answer to some set of questions about factual data."

For now, we'll have to wait until May to see whether the Web and scientific worlds embrace Wolfram's Alpha as a major mathematical and engineering breakthrough.

Read Nova Spivack's "Wolfram Alpha is Coming -- and It Could be as Important as Google"

See also: VentureBeat: Wolfram Alpha -- it's like plugging into an electronic brain

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