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Wolfram Alpha rolls out core updates

The mathematically inclined search engine gets slew of core updates to its search engine. But it can't make a Big Mac sound appetizing.

Though only three weeks old, Wolfram Alpha is already showing growing spurts.

On Monday, the project unleashed a variety of updates to its computational search engine, according to the latest blog from the Wolfram Alpha team. The updates include 1,850 changes to its code base and 1.1 million updates to its data.

In one sense, Wolfram Alpha is in constant update mode, since new data is flowing into the system all the time. But this is the company's first major release of so many core updates in one shot.

The blog post lists about 20 of the many updates. Some of the descriptions are abstract, such as "Additional linguistic forms for many types of data and questions." But several of the updates intrigued me, so I took them for a test drive to see how they fared with my own questions.

Here's a list of the updates I tried, along with my results:

More "self-aware" questions answered (e.g. "how old are you")
When I asked Wolfram Alpha its age, it told me it was 24 days, 10 hours, 21 minutes, and 38 seconds old. When I asked how old President Obama is, it said he was 47 years, 10 months, and 4 days old. Simple enough.

Improved linguistic handling for many foods (e.g. "love apple")
I typed "Big Mac," and Wolfram Alpha displayed a nutritional label, breaking down the amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, and other nasty items in the burger. Definitely makes me want to stick with a salad.

Big Mac Facts from Wolfram Alpha
Big Mac Facts from Wolfram Alpha

Combined time series plots of different quantities (e.g. "germany gdp vs population")
I entered "US population vs. oil prices." The site displayed a single chart tracking and comparing the rise in the number of people in the U.S. with the jump in the price of oil since 1970. I can see this as a useful capability to compare two distinct but possibly related items.

Additional support for stock prices with explicit dates
I typed "IBM June 1 1980," and Wolfram Alpha popped up a chart tracking IBM's stock price for the four-year period from 1979 to 1982, with the June 1, 1980, price highlighted. But Wolfram Alpha's stock data only goes back so far. When I entered a date for IBM stock earlier than June 1970, no chart or data was found. Other stocks also came up empty for data prior to the '70s.

Support for planet-to-planet distances and "nearest planet", etc.
Typing "Earth Saturn" brought up detailed facts and figures for both planets, including mass, radius, number of moons, distance from the sun, and distance from each other. This proved a quick, easy way to get all those facts in one shot.

More comparisons of composite properties (e.g. "US military vs. UK")
I entered "US unemployment vs Spain." The site told me the U.S. jobless rate is 7.2 percent, but Spain's is 13.9 percent. To double-check, I ran Google searches for the two countries' jobless rates. I found the current U.S. rate is around 9 percent (sourced to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and I double-checked on the BLS site), while Spain's is 18 percent. Checking further, I discovered that Wolfram Alpha was showing me data from the last three months of 2008 rather than the latest figures.

When I searched Wolfram Alpha for "US employment" and "Spain unemployment" by themselves, I got the same 2008 figures, but this time Wolfram Alpha told me the numbers were for 2008, a fact omitted in my first search results. Finally, I searched for "US unemployment 2009," but the site simply told me no data was available.

Based on my limited searches, my impression of Wolfram Alpha was mixed. I was intrigued by some of the obscure data it conjured up. I also liked the convenience of finding all relevant facts on one page.

But I was disappointed by the gaps in its knowledge. Why no stock information prior to 1970? (I'd like to check stock prices from the crash of 1929). Why no unemployment data later than 2008? And why the lack of consistency in telling me the jobless numbers were from last year? I can more easily Google "unemployment rates" to grab the latest results.

Granted, Wolfram Alpha isn't like a traditional search engine, serving up links to other sites. It relies on its own research and database to deliver results. The service has even said it's trying something different here. And at only three weeks old, the site is still experiencing growing pains.

The latest updates can help track down certain types of data. But Wolfram Alpha may have a way to go before it offers truly complete and up-to-date information.