Seeking Wolfram Alpha: Remember HAL?

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Physicist Stephen Wolfram is gearing up to unveil his knowledge search engine called Wolfram Alpha, that, rather than presenting information, computes knowledge.

Wolfram - who is a household name in theoretical particle physics circles, and a bit of a whizz at cosmology, cellular automata, complexity theory, and computer algebra too - is expected to reveal his latest creation in May.

Unlike Google, the engine doesn’t return documents that might contain the answer. It's not an encyclopedia, like Wikipedia.

Instead, Wolfram said the system is based on fields of knowledge that contain terabytes of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms to represent real-world knowledge as we know it.

In other words, the system understands questions that users input and then calculates the answers based on its extensive mathematical and scientific engine.

Of course, the engine answers straightforward questions such as 'What time is it in Gibraltar?' or 'What is the 200th number in Pi?'. The engine may struggle with more esoteric or philosophical questions, such as 'What does it all mean?', 'How long is a piece of string?' or 'What was the question?'.

The site is launching in May, so it will be a few more months to find other whether A New Kind of Search will really unlock the secrets of the web. In the meantime, bloggers have been vocal in their reactions as the search engine has sparked the imagination. Is it like Terminator's Skynet or HAL 9000 in terms Artifical Intelligence? Or is it argle-bargle?

Web pioneer Nova Spivak writes:

In a nutshell, Wolfram and his team have built what he calls a "computational knowledge engine" for the Web ... 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?" ... [it] doesn't simply contain huge amounts of manually entered pairs of questions and answers.

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It uses built-in models of fields of knowledge, complete with data and algorithms, that represent real-world knowledge. For example, it contains formal models of much of what we know about science -- massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties, as well as data about the physical world ... [But] there is no risk of Wolfram Alpha becoming too smart, or taking over the world.

Owen Thomas writes:

In the tradition of the great French encyclopédistes of the 18th century, his Wolfram Research has employed in stealth dozens of brainiacs translating specialized databases into machine-computable form. His approach is a riposte to both Google's idolization of algorithms and the fetish for crowdsourcing that swept Silicon Valley in the middle of this decade. Sometimes the best way to get an answer is to ask someone really smart. Like the Wizard of Oz, Wolfram's researchers lie behind the curtain of the answers Wolfram Alpha will provide. How comforting.

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