Google crashes Wolfram Alpha debut party

Mathematica maker publicly demonstrates a Web service to dig into data like stock prices or mortality--but Google launches a similar service on the same day.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science. Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
4 min read

Updated at 3:12 p.m. PDT with further detail.

Wolfram Research founder Stephen Wolfram publicly debuted his company's forthcoming online "computational knowledge engine" Tuesday--but search Goliath Google launched a service of its own that bears significant resemblance.

Wolfram Research CEO Stephen Wolfram
Wolfram Research CEO Stephen Wolfram Stephen Wolfram

The Wolfram Alpha engine is a Web service designed to process data from controlled, vetted sources of data--many not on the Web--then present the results in a way that lets people dig deeper into the subject. It's something of a cross between a graphing calculator, repositories of scientific data, and a system to interpret questions posed in human terms.

"Like interacting with an expert, it'll understand what you're talking about, do the computation, and present the results in such a way you'll be able to understand what the consequences are," Wolfram said in a talk at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society Tuesday.

For example, people can ask about the molecular weight of caffeine, about the location of a gene in the human genome, the number of people named Andrew born in a particular year, the amount of fish produced in France, the life expectancy of 40-year-olds, and the performance of Microsoft stock--and then dig into the results. The height of Mt. Everest can be expressed in terms of the length of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Wolfram has deep technical chops. He's a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient who got his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at age 20, founded Wolfram Research to commercialize mathematics software called Mathematica that can perform a wide variety of computational and graphing chores. He also spent a good portion of the 1990s writing "A New Kind of Science," a 1,200-page tome (also available online) that seeks to transform science by presenting a computational view of physics.

The Alpha site will be publicly available "in a few weeks," with free access to all users supported by sponsors and subscriptions for heavy-duty users who want the system to process their own data, Wolfram said.

Gatecrashing Google
But another similar service is available today: a Google feature that can search public data and present the results graphically.

"We just launched a new search feature that makes it easy to find and compare public data," Ola Rosling said of the service in a blog post. "The data we're including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers' salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on."

The service is based on Google's 2007 acquisition of Trendalyzer, Rosling said.

Google now lets people search public data sets.
Google now lets people search public data sets. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

One example: "When comparing Santa Clara county data to the national unemployment rate, it becomes clear not only that Santa Clara's peak during 2002-2003 was really dramatic, but also that the recent increase is a bit more drastic than the national rate," he said.

Thus far, Google's service includes data only from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau's Population Division.

"We hope people will find this search feature helpful, whether it's used in the classroom, the boardroom or around the kitchen table. We also hope that this will pave the way for public data to take a more central role in informed public conversations," he said.

Google didn't immediately comment about whether the timing of its launch was coincidental, and Wolfram Research didn't immediately comment on the Google product.

Alpha's underpinnings
Alpha has four main components, Wolfram said.

• Data curation. Wolfram Alpha uses public and licensed proprietary data sources, and the company uses automated processes and human choices to prepare the data. "At some point you need a human domain expert in front of it," Wolfram said.

• Algorithms. Alpha must pick the right computational processes to present its results. "Inside Wolfram Alpah are 5 million to 6 million lines of Mathematica code that implement all those methods and models," he said.

• Linguistic analysis to understand what a person typed. "I thought one of many things that could have gone wrong was that short, lazy things would (have) huge amounts of ambiguity," for example figuring out whether "50 cent" had to do with musical artists or money. "That turned out to be not nearly as much of a problem as we expected."

• Presentation. "There are tens of thousands of possible graphs. What do you want to show people?" Wolfram asked.

Wolfram hopes the tool will help researchers perform scientific chores that before were possible but not necessarily worth their time.

"What's the angle of sun at particular moment? Given 20 minutes, I could compute it and get it right, but I probably wouldn't bother," Wolfram said. "What Wolfram Alpha does is take that piece of scientific knowledge and make it immediately accessible to everybody."