Wolfram Alpha and the bowl of brown rice

Every now and then the story of the Google-killer resurfaces and like many of you, I had heard of the coming of the new search engine – Wolfram Alpha. Since the child prodigy and founder/creator of Wolfram Mathematica, Stephen Wolfram, unveiled the Alpha at a Harvard lecture in end April 09, reactions have been many. Google’s was possibly one of the first – Stephen Wolfram hadn’t finished his demo when Google’s official blog announced “a new service allowing users to search and compare public data”. Peter Norvig, Director of Research has been quoted saying “maybe having him out there will push us to release more, faster”. However, despite Google taking some serious note of Alpha – there are fundamental differences between the two – as anyone test driving Alpha wouldn’t have failed to notice.

Search engine vs. Find engine Google Like many others before and since – from AltaVista to Cuil and Bing, are inherently search engines: ie., it comes up with a list of pages/sites/sponsored links which in turn will provide the clues, answers and solutions. On the other hand the Alpha comes up with answers. I call it the Find Engine: it finds, computes, adds, divides, subtracts, measures, converts and finds the answer. Being mathematically challenged, I find it particularly useful to compute answers to problems like 30.33% of Indian Rupees 5600.45 I haven’t dabbled in sines and cosines since my school days, but I believe its particularly effective and fast.

Though thats where there some problems and potential mine fields are. Since there are no common shared protocols for identifying and tagging a data type (eg. distance in nautical miles, or phone numbers, or a street number) on the world wide web – Alpha and its ‘expert curators’ have had to create, buy, licence and assimilate vast pool of raw data, formulas and equations. A big help comes from the amazing Mathematica source. But the repository of source data is far from complete.

Lost in Translation And trying to make Alpha understand what you mean can sometimes be a bit uphill task. Shortly after the total Solar Eclipse on 22nd July, I entered the query: ‘total solar eclipse’. Alpha told me about the next total solar eclipse in great detail with 3 types of maps. I tried many other words – adding India, Varanasi, Bhopal et al. It kept returning the details of the next ones and after 7 futile attempts I knew that there was just no way I could make it understand what I meant. My earlier searches and results across the various engines follow.

However, if you accept Alpha’s possibilities with its inherent limitations then it can be fascinating, though not always useable. The other great thing is its interface:  Alpha gives an integrated look. Its serif face complements the expertise its meant to connote – its grey, black and orange palette combined with lot of white – ample breathing space gives it a freshness.

Postscript: this post was written a over a year ago and lay in my unpublished post for a pretty long time. Wolfram Alpha has changed in the meantime and not all changes are reflected in the post.

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