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Another Step Towards Deep Thought

Posted by Sravan | August 20, 2009 .

I have been reading about Wolfram|Alpha here and there every now and then but never gave it the attention it deserved until now. For the similarly uninitiated, what is Wolfram Alpha? Ask it yourself. Wolfram|Alpha is a self-aware computational knowledge engine, which is to say that it computes based on the knowledge it already has and knows what it is doing, or at least thinks that it does.

This self-description immediately highlights that it is very different from Google (and other search engines) and Wikipedia (and other online encyclopedias) despite the immediate comparisons (which even I make here). While Google isn’t self-aware and Wikipedia is, while Google can calculate basic math and Wikipedia doesn’t know 1+2, while Google uses algorithms to index and rank all junk on the web and Wikipedia provides human-generated narrative about every topic under the sun, Wolfram|Alpha belongs to a different (evolved, if I may) species now being called “answering engines”. Of course, Wolfram|Alpha can’t (yet) answer just about any question but according to its FAQ, “Eventually you should be able to ask it about essentially any kind of systematic factual knowledge.” Impressive self-awareness.

Stephen Wolfram, the genius behind Mathematica, decided four years ago that he was in a position to try building a computational knowledge engine using his own Mathematica and A New Kind of Science as ingredients. Four years later he decided to give us a glimpse and man takes another decisive step towards building a machine that can answer the ultimate question of the life, the universe, and everything.

wolfram alpha Another Step Towards Deep Thought
Being new to Wolfram|Alpha, I started with the listed “A few things to try” and moved on to prime numbers and the largest prime number. It knows about the infinite primes. It knows the Fermat’s little theorem but did not offer any proofs unlike Google did. It identified “c c d c f e” as musical notes but not as the opening notes of Happy Birthday To You. When I asked it, “Do you have a family?” it retracted into its shell on my curiosity for human discourse. It identified “Kindle” for what it originally was, an English word, displayed no knowledge about recent events like Amazon FAIL or when the Twitter was last down, and showed little interest about Barack Obama.

When I inquired about the date when Adolf Hitler committed suicide, it remained mum but told me about when the Führer died. This is heartening to see because unlike today’s hyperactive journalism, Wolfram|Alpha resists jumping from death to a suicide or a murder. We are dealing only with facts here. Of course, it did speculate when the next total solar eclipse would be.

While it boasts of implementing advanced NLP and other computational linguistics models, it could not understand my enquiry about “Eigen values” despite its extensive knowledge about “Eigenvalues”. Being based on Mathematica, not surprisingly, it has excellent computational skills (not to be confused with Google’s calculational skills) and easily solves small third-degree equations in two variables like “x^2+y^2=25 and x^3+y^3=91″ and here is the clincher: “Age of Queen Elizabeth II when Princess Diana died”!

As many have observed in their reviews, the answering engine does not understand human questions in vernacular nor entertains spelling mistakes all that well. A rearranging of the words in the question, and voila! For an infant barely three months old, it already knows a lot about the human and is prodigious and is of course an RIA of the next generation. But it also has a lot to learn in terms of dressing (UI), knowledge (other than Math), and language (ability to understand the flawed art of human inquiry).

Further Links: Wolfram|Alpha Blog, Examples, API, and Ethan Gardner’s article on use cases for web designers.

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