May 8, 2009
Posted: 12:21 PM ET
There's been lots of buzz in the tech community about a site called Wolfram|Alpha, which is set to launch in about a week - likely on May 18, according to a spokesman.
On first glance, Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine: it has a box where you type in a question or query terms. That's about where the similarities end, though, because, unlike Google or Ask, Wolfram|Alpha is kind of like an enormous calculator. It takes your question and crunches out an entirely new answer, even if the answer isn't something that's been posted on the Web before.
Confused? You're not alone. An example should help.
Say you're an investor and you want to see how two companies are faring against each other on the market. You could type in "IBM versus Apple" and Wolfram|Alpha will generate graphs and tables to compare the stocks over time. It also give you the Web-based sources used to generate the data, so you know where the numbers are coming from.
The site also solves equations and shows the steps it took to do so, which will be of interest to high school students and math majors. Not into number crunching? If you live near the coast, you could type in "tides in ____" and find charts of tidal and lunar information. You could also graph that against other cities, which would be cool if you're a surfer.
The site is also interesting for academic queries. Type in "Internet users in Africa" and you'll get the total number of Web users there - 51 million - as well as lists of the number of users by country plus graphs of this information. If you're in the fisheries business, or if you're an environmentalist, you could type in "fish produced in Italy versus France" to get an idea of how that sector is faring. The answer includes specifics, like how much of the fish crop was farmed versus what was captured. Such data could be used to argue policy points or to debate whether or not certain industries are sustainable.
But it's worth noting that all of the above searches were pulled out as examples in a press video released by the site's founder, Stephen Wolfram, who also was the creator of Mathematica. CNN obtained a test version of the site before its official release, and other searches that seem like they would work often didn't when I tried them.
I recently wrote a story about people who travel to dangerous parts of the world, so I searched for "countries with highest crime rates" and got no answer from the site. I tried a few variations and nothing seemed to work. "Country homicide rates" provided me to a link for the definition of a homicide, but that was about it.
CNET, a CNN partner site, experienced similar troubles when it tested Wolfram|Alpha. In a video, CNET says about two-thirds of its test searches didn't turn up useful information.
A writer for Harvardbusiness.org says Google is easier to use and Wikipedia is more powerful in the sense that it allows users to improve upon the site:
In a recent blog post, Google also says it has added a public-data search function.
Still, it sounds like people are mostly excited about Wolfram|Alpha - in part because the project's aim is just so lofty. In a press-release video, Wolfram says the site aims to "compute whatever can be computed about the world."
Read more from the site's blog.
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