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Wolfram Alpha – first light

Alex Christie

20 May 2009

I waited till Wolfram Alpha (I will call it W(α) from now, because “Wolfram Alpha” is fairly cumbersome) was live before I started slating it. I had a stockpile of ammunition ready for its deconstruction, thankfully I waited until I tried it before bashing it. W(α) is not really a search engine – I don’t even think it is dressing itself up as one, it is something else completely. I am not seeing evidence of aggressive crawling of the Internet – It is clear that W(α) uses several trusted sources for all of its information, it is as far from the real-time web as possible.

My initial queries for W(α) were quite broad as I figured out what its abilities were my initial query “displacement of the titanic” asked me if I meant the movie? My next query was “how much oxygen in the atmosphere” quite simple methinks but no luck. I decided that the natural language parsing wasn’t all that good – no better than any of the other search engine query parsers. So, enough with the language tests, I knew that W(α) would be very mathematical so I asked it everything I could think of and it astounded me. Sure this is what Wolfram is good at – mathematica is certainly the leader of mathematical computation – I moved on to some challenging chemistry and physics stuff and I was suitably impressed. It even knew what the “angle of repose of wet sand” was.

W(α) is a step in the right direction with a simple clean interface it handles complexity very easily. All of the data it has is “curated” which appears to mean that it comes from trusted sources and that there is some level of human moderation. This is not actually a bad thing, it is immune to spam but it is also somewhat limited however, I prefer a null answer to a nonsense one. What I am  sure of is that the output of W(α) is honest and very customizable.

A query of [e] in Google gives me the real number e=2.71828183. The very same query in W(α) gives me a much richer result With a selection of the type of result I am looking for “Assuming “e” is a character | Use as a particle or a mathematical constant or referring to music instead” all clickable. This is a very nice way to deal with the duplicity of results, better than any other attempt I have seen to date.

After the massive disappointment of cuil, Wolfram Alpha is a breath of fresh air. Even though it is not a true search engine, I think that Wolfram has produced something to really motivate the other Search engines into improving their interfaces. I really like the way the output is handled by Wolfram. There are really no SEO implications to Wolfram yet, they don’t want you to click through to a website either. In fact that is the primary difference between Wolfram Alpha and the other search engines, they all deliver web-pages as results – Wolfram actually delivers Results.

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