Tuesday, May 19, 2009

First Impressions of WolframAlpha

WolframAlpha came finally came online a few days ago (you can try it at www.wolframalpha.com). It is touted by some as the most serious competitor for Google, and possibly its eventual replacement. The major advancement in WolframAlpha is it's ability to actually gather data available on the web and answer questions, as opposed to just supplying you with links that may contain the answer to your questions. Of course if this is successful, nobody expects Google to sit passively by and loose market share. Google will undoubtedly come out with its own capabilities similar to WolframAlpha in the near future. We are on the verge of the next major revolution in making the knowledge on the web more accessible and useful to people, spurred on by the competition between WolframAlpha and Google.

I spent some time test driving WolframAlpha recently, and here are my first impressions.

My first test was to try to get a table of life expectancy listed by nation. I typed in “life expectancy by nation” and hit enter. WolframAlpha gave me a list of possible data, and the very first item was exactly the type of table I was looking for. Score one for WolframAlpha. (The United States was number 50 on the rankings by the way, in spite of the fact that we spend far more than any other nation on health care. Those of you involved in promoting health care reform probably already knew that.) Another great feature at the bottom of the data was a little link that points you to the source of the information. This is actually a critical feature for anyone expecting to use WolframAlpha for serious research. Score two for WolframAlpha.

As a second test, I tried to get a table of the carbon footprint of each nation. I typed in “carbon footprint by nation” and the response was “WolframAlpha isn't sure what to do with your input.” I tried to simplify the query and just typed in “carbon footprint”, but still got the same response. Oh my, it seems there is a lot of work to do still.

To be fair, WolframAlpha is described as “an ambitious, long-term intellectual endeavor that we intend will deliver increasing capabilities over the years and decades to come.” Clearly this is a major advance over the current Google search capabilities which will eventually change the way we use the web to gather data, but it is clearly also early in a long development process.

Unfortunately the creator of WolframAlpha, Stephen Wolfram, has left us all with a difficult problem to wrestle with. Somehow the phrase “I'm going to WolframAlpha that” just doesn't quite work. They will have to come up with a better verb if this is to enter the popular lexicon and replace "googling a question".

No comments: