Playing with Wolfram Alpha

I’ve been experimenting with the preview version of Wolfram Alpha. It’s not like any current search engine because it’s not a search engine at all. Others have already written more eloquent things about it.

The key feature of it is that it doesn’t just find information, it infers it on the fly. Take for exmple the query

next solar eclipse in Sunnyvale

AFAIK, nobody has ever written a regular web page describing this important (to me) topic. Try it in Yahoo! or Google and see for yourself. There are a few potentially interesting links based on the abstracts, but they turn out to be spammy. Wolfram Alpha figures out that I’m talking about the combination of a concept (“solar eclipse”) and a place (“Sunnyvale, CA”, but with an offer to switch to Sunnyvale, TX) and combines the two. The result is a simple answer–4:52 pm PDT | Sunday, May 20, 2012 (3.049 years from now). Hey, that’s sooner than I thought! Besides the date, there’s many related facts and a cool map.

This is in contrast to SearchMonkey, which I helped create, in two main areas:

  1. Wolfram Alpha uses metadata to produce the result, then renders it through a set of pre-arranged renderers. The response is facts, not web pages.
  2. SearchMonkey focuses on sites providing their own metadata, while Wolfram Alpha focuses on hand-curation.

Search engines have been striving to do a better job at fact-queries. Wolfram’s approach shows that an approach disjoint from finding web pages from an index can be hugely useful.

The engineers working on this have a sense of humor too. The query


returns a page that includes the text “power required to operate the flux capacitor in the DeLorean DMC-12 time machine” as well as a useful comparison (~ 0.1 x the power of space shuttle at launch).

Yahoo! and Google do various kinds of internal “query rewriting”, but usually don’t let you know other than in the broadest terms (“did you mean …”). Wolfram Alpha shows a diagram of what it understood the query to be. The diagrams make it evident that something like the RDF model is in use, but without peeking under the hood, it’s hard to say something definitive.

One thing I wonder about is whether Wolfram Alpha creates dynamic (as was a major goal of SearchMonkey) of giving web authors a reason to put more metadata in their sites–a killer app if you will. It’s not clear at this early date how much web crawling or site metadata extraction (say RDFa) plays into the curation process.

In any case Wolfram Alpha is something to watch. It’s set to launch publicly this month. -m

One Response to “Playing with Wolfram Alpha”

  1. Martin

    4:52 pm PDT on Sunday, May 20, 2012 is 3.049 years from now? That sounds like really bad math ;-)