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Wolfram Alpha: A Legitimate Challenge to Google?


May 04, 2009

Wolfram Alpha: A Legitimate Challenge to Google?

By Michael Dinan
TMCnet Editor


“I forget, what’s the name of that place up in Milford with the really good Pad Thai? Oh, man. It’s on the tip of my tongue . . . Um . . . You know what? Nevermind. I’m just gonna ‘Wolf’ it.”
For the past decade and until now, the term most of us have used in utterances similar to the one above is to “Google (News - Alert)” something – to use the Internet search and ad leader’s database to get information.

It sometimes takes some scrolling or refining to sift through what Google’s search engine spits back at us, but over time most Web users become better and better at using the site to find what they want faster. That kind of “Google-ing” is common enough now that the Mountain View, California-based company has developed a specific set of enterprise tools that professionals – such as contact center agents – can use to boost customer service and ROI by accessing relevant information more quickly.
Yet this month, a new, free search system will hit the Internet that IT insiders are hailing as the first major Web innovation since the research project which produced Google was born 13 years ago.
“Wolfram Alpha” – developed by software company Wolfram Research, Inc., whose U.S. headquarters are in Champaign, Illinois – is said to do a better job than Google of understanding questions and giving more specific, relevant answers than the Internet ever has.
“Wolfram Alpha is really concentrating on giving us just the facts about things,” the company’s founder and project’s leader, British-born Stephen Wolfram (pictured right), says in a YouTube (News - Alert) video where he demos the search engine.
In a basic sense, the system appears to work very similarly to Google: Users type queries into a box, hit return and view results that they can scroll through.
Yet there are also appear to be key differences. According to Wolfram (the man), there’s a partially human and partially automated process that Wolfram Alpha uses to take information and make it “computable.”
“We have millions of pieces of curated data,” he said.
The search engine appears to search for hard data related to search terms – such as geographical and meteorological information on a location search – and returns it in an attractive way, with graphical displays as well as links.
Wolfram says the system includes 5 million to 6 million lines of mathematical codes that it relies on produce its results – the kind of detailed algorithmic effort that Google, for example, guards extremely closely as Web designers and others seek to leverage the tool for SEO (“search engine optimization”) purposes.
When using Google, we’ve all probably spelled a word phonetically or used shorthand to enter a search term and had Google come back to us with a message like “Did you mean XXXX?”
It appears Wolfram Alpha also is more user-friendly in that sense, as it relies on linguistic analysis to interpret natural language and return relevant search results. As Wolfram himself points out during his demo, the system also accepts technical jargon or highly sophisticated search terms.
It’s difficult, at this stage, to separate much of the hype surrounding Wolfram Alpha from its real value.
Here’s a sampling of the praise the system has garnered before its official debut, according to Andrew Johnson of London’s “The Independent” newspaper:
“If it is not gobbled up by one of the industry superpowers, his company may well grow to become one of them in a small number of years, with most of us setting our default browser to be Wolfram Alpha.” (Doug Lenat,
“This is like a Holy Grail... the ability to look inside data sources that can’t easily be crawled and provide answers from them.” (Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of
Johnson himself quotes Wolfram – a brilliant man, to be sure – as saying the system’s innovation is its ability to work things out “on the fly.”
Yet the example Johnson gives us may lead to questions about the system’s real challenge to Google.
“If you ask it to compare the height of Mount Everest to the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, it will tell you,” Johnson reports. “Or ask what the weather was like in London on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated, it will cross-check and provide the answer.”
Surely those are answers that Google itself could provide. For example, a Google search for “How high is Mount Everest?” returns this result first:

That’s not to say that Wolfram Alpha won’t have distinct advantages. But Google – like Facebook (News - Alert) in the social networking space – appears to be emerging as a part of our language and likely won’t be displaced without something spectacular.
Of course, Wolfram might have the pedigree to produce something spectacular.
Born in London in 1959, he was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Caltech. He published his first scientific paper at the age of 15, and had received his PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech by the age of 20. Wolfram’s early scientific work was mainly in high-energy physics, quantum field theory, and cosmology, and included several now-classic results. Having started to use computers in 1973, Wolfram rapidly became a leader in the emerging field of scientific computing, and in 1979 he began the construction of SMP – the first modern computer algebra system – which he released commercially in 1981.
Johnson’s article is sub-headed “An invention that could change the Internet forever.”
But it’s difficult to get computer users to do something completely different to what they’ve always done.
For example, many of the people reading this article will go directly to Google and do a search for “Wolfram Alpha”?

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Michael Dinan is a contributing editor for TMCnet, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Michael's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan

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