Wolfram Alpha and information searching

Wolfram Alpha, announced on morning TV today and on everyone’s lips as the news got around. Earlier this week a tweet alerted me to this new kind of search engine and I watched a demonstration screencast about how it might work.


The statements about “killing” Google that are going around seem, to me,  to be a bit silly. Wolfram Alpha is a different search engine to Google, and  it does not aim to do exactly the same thing. Yes, in general terms both aim give information that will answer your query, but they have a different approach as to how you find the answers to your queries. As we all know, Google, and other such search engines, refers to links to other sites related to the keyword/s used to set up the search. It is as it states, a web search engine.

Wolfram Alpha is a knowledge based engine tries to compute answers for a different type of question. It returns is a summary of information that it has garnered from all over the net so it does not offer sites but displays the results to the question, very quickly. It does depend on the questioning technique and it will have to be able to understand the question, therefore the programming will have to take into account the idiosyncrasies of human language.

QuestionTipsThere are a few tips on how ask questions that will yeild the best results. I have played around with some questions that have been asked by students in the last fortnight. It did not do well on some but on others.

For instance “How is electricity measured?” did not come up with a result and I had to click on another link to work out the probable answer. “What is hydropower?” asked by the teacher did not yeild results but “What is hydroelectricity?” did give me a nice basic answer. A question about carbon nanotubes also came up without an answer as did “applications of nanotechnology” It did tell me how many eearthquakes there were in Asia in the last 2 months and the rate of inflation in China, both within seconds. Searching for the element carbon also brought up a lot of data. Searching the “black death” gave me a timeline and “Islamic renaissance” was interpreted as  “Islamic golden age” and listed the timeline and the countries, and “William the Conqueror” was also found easily. I found information that was basic but would answer many of the questions set by teachers in assignments because they were simple questions. You can download the results as a PDF and you get information about the source of the resultant data. There is no indication about what information came from what source but you can follow you search further when the information is linked.

In a post, on PhoenixRealm (Phoenix SEO Blog), by Hannah called  WolframAlpha: A Knowledge Engine there is a good summary of what WA can do.

The thing about WolframAlpha though is that since it is a computational knowledge engine it won’t return the latest movie show times or restaurant addresses, which is good news to Google and the other search engines because they are still needed for those kind of searches. What WolframAlpha will return though are all the information that I needed way back in college to make my life easier. It will compute any mathematical formula and plot functions, compute relativistic momentum, give you the financial background of a company and extrapolate the data to predict future trend, allow comparison between performance of companies, give you information about any date, and so much more. In short it is what it claims to be a KNOWLEDGE ENGINE.

While this is not yet artificial intelligence, it is getting closer to it. It is taking the information available on the internet and trying to combine it into some form of logical context/content. There are also ramifications for education. Teachers will need to ask better questions and expect more than just a rewording of the information found. It really is not about whether students can find the information but what they actually do with it. The learning networks and now the other searching tools available are changing the knowledge world. How students understand the information they find, put it into new contexts, expand on it, etc. will/should be the learning that is assessed. The higher order thinking skills and the ability to judge/analyse the relevance/appropriateness/reliability of information found will be the important skills that must be the major part of learning world of the student. Teachers need to be creating environments that encourage students to become active learners in this world not passive receptacles of whatever bits of information they are given.

Below is a long video explaining Stephen Wolfram’s ambitious project to create a comprehensive “computational knowledge engine.” The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University hosted a sneak preview of the Wolfram|Alpha system, and a discussion of its underlying technology and implications. There is also a podcast  of an interview between Stephen Wolfram, the brains behind Mathematica, and David Weinberger, where he explains how the Wolfram Alpha tool works, and what it might do to searching in the future


2 Responses

  1. […] Surprising Terms of Service. | Kumaran Technology World…Wolfram Alpha — Listics…Wolfram Alpha and information searching « Rhondda’s Reflections – wandering around…Add Wolfram Alpha to Firefox Search Box | How in the TECH…The space stuff on Wolfram Alpha is […]

  2. What a brilliant story about seo. I’m frankly quite amazed that it hasn’t been stated before to such great lengths.

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