Wolfram Alpha: A Computational Knowledge Engine

Stephen Wolfram is a theorist best known for his work in cellular automata and the computer program Mathematica. His company, Wolfram Research, launched Wolfram Alpha this past weekend. It had a few opening weekend technical glitches, but the new "computational knowledge engine" is live.

Wolfram Alpha (or WolframAlpha or Wolfram|Alpha, I have seen all three online) is not a search engine, but I'll bet that Google is watching Alpha closely. It has also been described as an "answer-engine."

It answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from public structured data. It gives you an answer, unlike a search engine which provides a list of documents or web pages that might contain the answer. "Computes" is a good way to describe the engine which is built upon Mathematica. The answers are often numerical and sometimes will be presented as visualizations (charts, graphs etc.).

Alpha is also not a "semantic search engine" which will index a large number of answers and then try to match the question to one of them, but it will try to interpret your query.

If you type in a month/day/year, it can pull any data about that particular date. I tried my birth day. Wikipedia has no "answer" to that. Google has more than 4,170,000 results. Neither of those is satisfactory. Not that this is very heavy research, but I was born on a Tuesday ("Tuesday's child is full of grace.") and I have been on the planet for 20,299 days.

I entered my hometown and it guessed (based on my IP address) that I wanted the city by that name in New Jersey (Correct). I tried putting in my zip code and it told me the number in Roman numerals, the prime factorization and the binary form of it. Hmmmm...  With the preface "zip code," it found the town - and the average household income, average house value, that there are 5920 mail receptacles, that the temperature is 55 degrees and the humidity is 35%.

Alpha doesn't need to be populated with information since it is pulling current data, so it has the basics on Passaic County Community College as well as NJIT (though I needed to write out the college names).

I input "population of Newark, NJ / Paterson" and it tells me 1.873, gives me the populations of both and a chart of the history of - something - it's not labeled, so it might be Paterson or Newark or something else.

I input "Microsoft Apple" and it guessed I wanted stock information and it gave a bunch of it, including a comparative chart. (Microsoft is worth more but their ups and downs have actually been very similar.)

Now, final test. Totally not mathematical or data. I typed in my surname, expecting either nothing to show up, or a slew of data I don't want public (like my salary, home phone, etc.). Instead, it interpreted Ronkowitz as "Boskowitz then Boskovice,Jihomoravsky,Czech Republic" which, of course, is not me. The weird thing is that little village is just a few hours drive from my grandparents birthplace and hometown. Try that Google!

Try some pre-formatted sample queries in discrete math, technology, words and linguistics, sports & games, music or education.

I definitely recommend that you watch the introductory screencast before giving it a trial run. The video does a nice job of showing examples from simple to complex.


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