Wolfram Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that hopes to complement traditional search engines, debuted over the weekend. Watching Stephen Wolfram demo the service in a screencast last week excited the geek in me: A search engine that can do calculus?
Try the app yourself, and you’ll find that it has an easy-to-use interface and can provide some very interesting results. Want to know the distance between San Francisco and Tokyo? Alpha can do that. It will add some other interesting facts, too, like the populations of the two cities. Enter a date (like my birth date) and Alpha will return a bunch of facts about that date. It can also do some even more impressive things. Enter any equation (including calculus) and Alpha will plot out an answer for you. It can even display geometeric shapes and show you which notes to play to make a chord. On the results pages you can drill down to get more interesting information, change the units, or fiddle with the inputs.
Unfortunately, once you play with the app for a little while, you’ll realize that there are some large gaps in its abilities, which is frustrating, especially given how the demo made it look like you could type in nearly any question and get back a useful result. However, as Wolfram says, Alpha “is the first step in an ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone.” It’s important to realize that Alpha is still at an early stage: Whether it is ultimately successful depends on if the team behind it can fill in those gaps.
Knowledge engines like Wolfram Alpha and True Knowledge (previously covered on WWD), are not intended to be “Google killers,” rather they could act as a useful complement to traditional search engines. I imagine that Wolfram Alpha, in particular, could be a useful tool for school and college students, journalists and bloggers.
Wolfram Alpha suffered from traffic overload errors over the weekend as people rushed to try the service (the computing power requirements of the service must be huge), so if you’d like to play with it, you might need to be a little patient.
Share your thoughts on Wolfram Alpha in the comments.