Wolfram Alpha: an alternative to Google, the Semantic Web and Cyc?

March 11th, 2009

There’s been a lot of interest in Wolfram Alpha in the past week, starting with a blog post from Steve Wolfram, Wolfram|Alpha Is Coming!, in which he described his approach to building a system that integrates vast amounts of knowledge and then tries to answer free form questions posed to it by people. His post lays out his approach, which does not involve extracting data from online text.

“A lot of it is now on the web—in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text. But we can’t compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can’t figure anything new out.

So how can we deal with that? Well, some people have thought the way forward must be to somehow automatically understand the natural language that exists on the web. Perhaps getting the web semantically tagged to make that easier.

But armed with Mathematica and NKS I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable.”

Nova Spivack took a look at Wolfram Alpha last week and thought that it could be “as important as Google”.

In a nutshell, Wolfram and his team have built what he calls a “computational knowledge engine” for the Web. OK, so what does that really mean? Basically it means that you can ask it factual questions and it computes answers for you.

It doesn’t simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn’t just a giant database of knowledge, like the Wikipedia. It doesn’t simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents, like Powerset, for example.

Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions — like questions that have factual answers such as “What is the location of Timbuktu?” or “How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?,” “What was the average rainfall in Boston last year?,” “What is the 307th digit of Pi?,” “where is the ISS?” or “When was GOOG worth more than $300?”

Doug Lenat, also had a chance to preview Wolfram Alpha and came away impressed:

“Stephen Wolfram generously gave me a two-hour demo of Wolfram Alpha last evening, and I was quite positively impressed. As he said, it’s not AI, and not aiming to be, so it shouldn’t be measured by contrasting it with HAL or Cyc but with Google or Yahoo.”

Doug’s review does a good job of sketching the differences he ses between Wolfram Alpha and systems like Google and Cyc.

Lenat’s description makes Wolfram Alpha sound like a variation on the Semantic Web vision, but one that more like a giant closed database than a distributed Web of data. The system is set to launch in May 2009 and I’m anxious to give it a try.