Wolfram Alpha: Computational Knowledge Search Engine

Dennis Faas's picture

There's been a mixed response to a new search tool aiming to answer questions rather than index the web. Wolfram Alpha has earned praise for its ability to solve specific problems, but it's become clear it's no replacement for the wider capabilities of Google and friends.

The site, which has been in testing for a few weeks but is now fully operational, is the work of British physicist Stephen Wolfram. He's best known for developing the argument that the wider universe runs on logical rules, just like the language of computer programs.

Solutions, Not Guidance

The major difference with Wolfram Alpha is that it does not work by taking a search term and trying to find websites that may be relevant. Instead, its goal is to use data, both from the Internet and from otherwise publicly unavailable sources, to give a specific answer to a question. It's reported that the service uses trillions of pieces of data from credible sources.

Computational Knowledge Engine

Wolfram Alpha has been described as a "computational knowledge engine" because it can produce information which doesn't currently exist in printed form. The site's goal is to "make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything." (Source: latimes.com)

For example, you can ask the site to calculate who earns more on average: a motorcycle courier, a bus driver or a taxi cab driver. As a personal study, I was able to confirm the local temperature and rainfall levels at the hour of my birth (which came at the end of a record-setting drought).

Impressive But Limited

The irony of the site is that while its supporters argue that search engines are inherently limited, Wolfram Alpha as it exists is itself of limited use. What it does works well and far outshines search engines in its accuracy and credibility. That said: for many queries, it offers little or no help. (Source: pcmag.com)

If you want a specific answer to a question, if that subject comes within Wolfram's remit, and if you can word the question in a way the site can understand, it's the only tool you'll need. But if your query is more general, subjective, or deals with a less mainstream topic, then existing search engines remain the answer.

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