The brainchild of 49-yr-old British-born physics whizz Dr Stephen Wolfram (pictured, slightly scarily), the much anticipated WolframAlpha 'computational knowledge engine' went online at www.wolframalpha.com over the weekend. It has been compared to Google in its potential importance by eminent figures in the tech world, so citizens of the net have been flocking there to see just what it can do.
Although its founder hasn’t exactly discouraged such flamboyant comparisons – that kind of publicity can’t be bought, right? – he may end up regretting having not done so. People expecting a Google beater are going to be sorely disappointed. WA is not a search engine, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that it’s not very good at search engine type stuff like finding you somewhere handy to eat or checking out aerial photos of your neighbour’s new extension.
What it does do, as Dr Wolfram has been busy explaining, is use a huge database of peer-reviewed, quality controlled and accuracy-checked data – plus a massive amount of processing horsepower – to work out the answers to questions in real time. By contrast, search engines simply find web pages which are more or less likely to contain the information you are seeking, they don’t do any figuring out or sense-checking on your behalf at all.
The result, for now at any rate, is astonishingly highbrow – doubtless a reflection of the precocious intellect of Dr Wolfram, who was publishing papers on particle physics as a sixteen year old and got his PhD from Caltech aged only 20.
This is how the contents of the internet would have turned out if every page had to be vetted by a panel of distinguished scientists before it was uploaded. If you are struggling with some particularly fiendish differential calculus, or labouring in vain to complete a polynomial ring, then Wolfram’s extraordinary facility to do Really Hard Sums will be an absolute godsend. For those without a maths degree it's an education in itself. Egyptian fractions anyone? Quadratic residues?
It’s also pretty nifty on the kind of wacky stats beloved of pub quizmasters – how many Nelson’s Columns’ deep is the Southern Ocean, that kind of thing (86.34 on average, in case you were wondering). But those looking to buy a cheap telly or catch up on the Jordan and Peter split will have to go elsewhere.
Here at MT we rather like it – despite the total absence of any discernable business plan. But it’s going to have to do some serious swotting-up on popular culture and retail therapy if it’s to stand any chance at all of becoming a verb.
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WolframAlpha, the Google killer?