Home Wolfram|Alpha: Our First Impressions

Wolfram|Alpha: Our First Impressions

The hype around Wolfram|Alpha, the next “Google killer” from the makers of Mathematica, has been building over the last few weeks. Today, we were lucky enough to attend a one-hour web demo with Stephen Wolfram, and from what we’ve seen, it definitely looks like it can live up to the hype – though, because it is so different from traditional search engines, it will definitely not be a “Google killer.” According to Stephen Wolfram, the goal of Alpha is to give everyone access to expert knowledge and the data that a specialist would be able to compute from this information.

Note: Wolfram asked us to refrain from posting screenshots, so we will not use any in this post.

Update 4/30: We just posted our screenshots here.

Alpha, which will go live within the next few weeks, is quite different from Google and really doesn’t directly compete with it at all. Instead of searching the web for info, Alpha is built around a vast repository of curated data from public and licensed sources. Alpha then organizes and computes this knowledge with the help of sophisticated Natural Language Processing algorithms. Users can ask Alpha any kind of question, which can be constructed just like a Google search (think: “hurricane bob” or “carbon steel strength”).

In today’s demo, for example, Stephen Wolfram searched for “internet users in europe,” or “weather oakland” – two queries that most users would also use in Google or any other search engine.

Where Alpha exceeds, is in the presentation of its “search” results. When asked for how many internet users there are in Europe, for example, Alpha returned not just the total number, but also various plots and data for every country (apparently Vatican City only has 93 Internet users).

Another query with a very sophisticated result was “uncle’s uncle’s brother’s son.” Now if you type that into Google, the result will be a useless list of sites that don’t even answer this specific question, but Alpha actually returns an interactive genealogic tree with additional information, including data about the ‘blood relationship fraction,’ for example (3.125% in this case).

Alpha, of course, doesn’t hide its relationship with Mathematica. Indeed, according to Stephen Wolfram, Alpha is built on top of 5 million lines of Mathematica code which currently run on top of about 10,000 CPUs (though Wolfram is actively expanding its server farm in preparation for the public launch).

Alpha can handle a lot of the mathematical questions that Mathematica can compute today (think: “integrate x^3 sin^2 x dx”), but every query will only run for a few seconds, so really complex queries will inevitable time out. Mathematica, however, will also be one of the first programs to make use of the Alpha API, so that Mathematica users will be able to access Alpha’s repository of data.

Alpha also has a sophisticated knowledge of physics and chemistry data, and during today’s demo, we also saw examples for nutritional information, weather, and census data. Most of the data in the system is curated, but real-time financial data or weather information will go through a system that checks the data for validity, so that outliers can be identified as potentially faulty information.

Pro Version

Alpha will come in a free version, but there will also be a paid version, which will allow users to download and upload data to Alpha. Stephen Wolfram did not go into too much detail, including pricing, but pro users will, for example, be able to not just see a graph, but also download the data behind this graph for use on their own machines or in Mathematica.

Embedding and Alerts

Wolfram is clearly taking a page from the modern Internet playbook and will allow users to embed not just a Wolfram|Alpha search box on their own pages, but they will also be able to embed results and a custom Alpha portal on their own sites. Users will also be able to receive email alerts when a result changes.

A Few More Random Notes

  • every search results page on Alpha will feature a link to the sources it used to compute the results
  • when a fact is disputed, Alpha will note this in a footnote
  • Alpha will only be in English for now – Wolfram notes that this was already a very hard task and that the company does not currently have the resources to replicate its natural language processing techniques for other languages
  • money: alpha will feature ads in a sidebar, but Wolfram will also partner with other corporate entities. He didn’t go into any details, but it sounded like these corporate partnerships might include other search engines.
  • Wolfram will release toolbars for FF and IE, as well as an IE8 accelerator
  • Alpha will also display results from traditional search engines (Google, Live, Yahoo) and will feature links to relevant Wikipedia articles

Will it Kill Google?

No. Wolfram|Alpha will be an amazing product, but it’s quite different from Google and other search engines. Indeed, maybe it is actually wrong to call it a search engine at all (and Wolfram prefers to call it a “computational knowledge engine”). If you wanted to know what sights to see on your next trip to New York City, for example, Alpha, from what we’ve seen so for, will not be able to help you.

Alpha, however, will probably be a worthy challenger for Wikipedia and many textbooks and reference works. Instead of looking up basic encyclopedic information there, users can just go to Alpha instead, where they will get a direct answer to their question, as well as a nicely presented set of graphs and other info.

Today’s demo mostly focused on math and engineering data, so we’ll still have to wait and see how Alpha copes with questions about historical events, for example.

Every product, of course, looks good in a controlled demo (though Stephen Wolfram also happily entertained questions from the audience for almost an hour), and we will have to wait and see how well Alpha performs when faces with real questions from real users. Based on what we’ve seen today though, it seems rather unlikely that Alpha will be the next Cuil.

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