Wolfram/Alpha's demo: Search results meet analytics

Wolfram/Alpha's demo: Search results meet analytics

Summary: Updated: Stephen Wolfram, creator of the Wolfram/Alpha search engine, on Tuesday demonstrated his much ballyhooed "computational knowledge engine" at a talk at Harvard University. Wolfram likened his effort to reproducing a global reference library and said Wolfram/Alpha will launch in "a few weeks.

TOPICS: Browser

Updated: Stephen Wolfram, creator of the Wolfram/Alpha search engine, on Tuesday demonstrated his much ballyhooed "computational knowledge engine" at a talk at Harvard University. Wolfram likened his effort to reproducing a global reference library and said Wolfram/Alpha will launch in "a few weeks."

Wolfram's demonstration was one of the few times his search engine, built on algorithms from his Mathematica project, has been seen since word leaked out about it weeks ago. ReadWriteWeb had a nice overview over the weekend. Wolfram covered multiple topics such as data accuracy, Wolfram/Alpha's business model and the bridge between analytics and search. 

The demonstration Webcast was held from the Berkman Center for Internet and Technology put some meat around the hype surrounding Wolfram/Alpha. The Wolfram/Alpha search engine has been billed as a Google killer in some camps. Indeed, Google announced a few public data search enhancements as Wolfram was presenting.

One worry: The Wolfram/Alpha search engine seemed slow, according to Wolfram. What will happen when the public starts poking around on it? "Running a little slower than I'm used to seeing," he said. "When it's alive in the world it'll be quite a bit zippier than this."

Is Wolfram/Alpha a Google killer? Probably not. Wolfram/Alpha's approach, however, is notable and it's easy to picture it being used in the enterprise. Wolfram's demonstration could be summed up as an intersection between analytics and generic Web search. Wolfram/Alpha gets you an answer instead of pointers to potential answers. "It tries to tell us useful information based on what it can compute," said Wolfram. "The goal is to provide expert level access to anyone at anytime."

Wolfram also gave some insight to his business model. "This Web site will be a free site. We will have corporate sponsors that will have things on the side here. We know a lot about the specific questions people are asking and know what kind of knowledge people want. There is a lot of vendor information" (that Wolfram can monetize eventually) and a subscription professional site, he said. 

Here's a screen from the Webcast, which was buggy most likely due to a bevy of watchers. 

"What we're trying to do is take all the things that can be computed about the world...and try and package it to the point where we can just walk up to a web site and have it deliver the knowledge we'd like to have. Like interacting with an expert it will understand what you are talking about, do the computation and present to you results."

Four big pieces are behind Wolfram/Alpha:

  • Curated data: Free, licensed and feed data. Running through human and automated process to verify the data and make sure it's "clean and curatable." At some point, you need a human domain expert. 
  • Algorithms: Wolfram/Alpha uses a bevy of algorithms in 5 million to 6 million of Mathematica code.
  • Linguistics: The goal is to interpret free-form language processing. Wolfram said Wolfram/Alpha uses various components and techniques to figure out what people are actually asking. Part of that process is filtering out fluff.  "We've been pretty good at removing linguistic fluff," said Wolfram, he said people eventually get to the point where they speak as if they were talking to an expert. "People quickly begin to just type in concepts as they come to them."
  • Presentation: Algorithms try to pick out what's important to the searcher. Again, Wolfram noted that human-aided algorithms are needed.

Instead of delivering up a bunch of links, the Wolfram/Alpha search engine tries to put a narrative around a user's question and allow them to drill down. Indeed, the result presentation features graphics and other computational features. Think part calculator, part search engine. 

Among the demonstrated searches:

  • Wolfram did a search on the GDP of France and got a plot of the GDP history and some history. The next search had the GDP of France divided by the GDP of Italy and Wolfram/Alpha delivered an answer. 
  • The weather in Lexington, Mass. as a search term delivered a summary of the temperature and plotted it as a function of time. 
  • A search on "medical LDL 180" dove into a public health study showing that level of cholesterol put someone in the 95.9 percentile in the U.S. Further refinements of the search---like "male age 40"---will yield a chart for life expectancy. 

How will Wolfram/Alpha do? Probably pretty well for certain applications---especially the academic variety. Meanwhile, the presentation is interesting. At the very least, we can learn from Wolfram's latest pet project. 

In the question and answer session, Wolfram addressed data accuracy and said "there will be a mechanism to contribute data, audit data and have it flow into the system." The big question will be how quickly Wolfram/Alpha can absorb the vetted data. 

Other odds and ends:

  • Wolfram/Alpha will have a variety of levels of APIs---presentation, underlying XML for mashups and individual results from its databases and computations. There is a first draft of the API documentation as of March 27. 
  • There is a plan to have a professional version of Wolfram/Alpha to upload data. This move would open an enterprise revenue stream. 
  • Wolfram said his search engine will footnote data where there is scientific disputes. 
  • Here's what Wolfram said when asked about the semantic Web. "If the semantic Web turned out to be an overwhelming thing our job would have been much easier," said Wolfram, who also noted that much of Wolfram/Alpha's data isn't available on the Web. 

Topic: Browser

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  • He deserves to do well.

    Hopefully he can take over Microsoft's little share of the search market.
    • Microsoft?

      I agree that I would like to see the new search engine do well, but rather than resulting in the elimination of a search engine (and the elimination of some marketplace competition), I would rather see it start to chip away at the Google monopoly.
  • RE: Wolfram/Alpha's demo: Search results meet analytics

    Hi there,

    "Algorithms: Wolfram/Alpha uses a bevy of algorithms including 5 million to 6 million of mathematical code."

    should probably be

    "Algorithms: Wolfram/Alpha uses a bevy of algorithms including 5 million to 6 million lines of Mathematica code."

  • Brilliant

    If this goes as planned...

    This could be the engine students, professionals and researchers flock to.

    Catchy name too. It sounds more serious than wiki, or google. So the marketing is good.
    • Sounds like the name of a comet (nt)

  • RE: Wolfram/Alpha's demo: Search results meet analytics

    This looks like a rather brilliant approach to making
    a useable frontend for cloud computing

    If alpha can "see" inside papers and build models of
    algorithms or access data from within them this could
    be a fantastic tool for data analysis and building
    working models rapidly

    It would dramatically accelerate peer review and
    scientific discovery by allowing researchers to focus
    on adding value with their own research rather than
    spending 80-90% of their time trying to duplicate the
    research of others from papers

    It would also dramatically strengthen peer review as
    the paper would be effectively be live and the
    reviewer could interact with it rather than having to
    first duplicate the work of the author

    Is this how it's supposed to work ... I wish!
  • RE: Wolfram/Alpha's demo: Search results meet analytics

    Mr. Wolfram is incredibly intelligent, and very socially conscious. Mere mortals have a difficult time 'groking' his
    achievements. I love the guy and his works. He's making the
    World a far better place!
  • RE: Wolfram/Alpha's demo: Search results meet analytics

    this should contribute greatly to the logic algorithms needed for a better artificial intelligence
  • Nice -> Fundamental

    I think this is one of those ideas that will appear to be a niche product, but eventually come to be one of the fundamental tools we rely on. Maybe only 10% of searches are computational, but that's still billions a year.
  • Mumbo Jumbo

    At first view (since i can't test it), its look a mumbo jumbo, some sort of the old Ask-Jeeves plus data analysis.

    IMHO is too ambitious and people will discard in no time when the first "natural question" will point you to a unrelated answer.

  • RE: Wolfram/Alpha's demo: cost v Mathematica

    Mathematica is a very serious modelling and programming tool; it comes with an equally serious price attached to it. He's offering it at $49 to individual teachers, but the price in school is eyewatering once you look at multiple copies.

    I'm sure that WR could cut better deals for education; and therefore it'll be interesting to see how he plays his cards if he targets Alpha at institutions rather than the public.

    I suspect price might be the biggest controlling factor on uptake.
  • Walph....

    No one is going to say... So I Wolfram Alpha'd it on the net, they will find a way to shorten it in some gay way. Kinda like those dorky celebrity couple names where the media morphs the two together like Brangelina... Talk about gay.

    So I Walph'd it up and found some intahwesting stuff...

    Sounds like Madeline Kahn trying to say she puked and studied the vomit...

    It's going to be hard to tell who has a speech impediment when everyone is "Walphing" up stuff on the net.... LOL Is there going to be a logo of a drunk college kid puking? "What are you going to "Walph" up today?" Hmmm, catchy slogan.
    • Wolfa...

      Walph and walpha are too childish sounding. Wolfa or wolf or wolph are the best of the many suggestions floating around the net
  • RE: Wolfram/Alpha's demo: Search results meet analytics

    It seems to me that this is a further step towards the intuitive AI Internet; ask a question get the (hopefully right) answer.
    I look forward to the version that writes programs on the fly enabling me to ask, "give me a trading algorithm for Beta-level stocks in the Housing Industry."
    Or, being able to propose answers to "Why" questions, rather than just How or What or Who or When questions.
  • One thing it is likely to contribute to...

    Is advancing the development of artificial intelligence. Once millions start using Wolfram, glitches in its "thinking" are bound to surface, and with millions of usages to study its bound to assist in pointing to fixes for those glitches that otherwise might have been difficult to resolve without that kind of input.

    Much the same way that MS sends out beta versions of new Windows OS's for public testing to shake out bugs that need massive usage to reveal and solve, this kind of search engine is bound to rapidly refine the way a computer can think more intelligently and in the long term with far fewer errors and glitches.
  • Is "curatable" a word?

    Is "curatable" a word?
    • not according to google

      type in " define:curatable " anywhere you can do a google search.

      haha. I would've used wolfram/alpha, but I can't until May.
      • Is "curatable" a word?

        Just google "curatable" and you'll find plenty of technical sources that contain it. Curatable may not be in common use but it appears to be well understood in technical contexts associated with the use value of information and/or artifacts.
  • RE: Wolfram/Alpha's demo: Search results meet analytics

    Excellent, another product from Mathematica which will be entirely proprietary, overpriced, and will require the thought processes of an Engineer to utilize.

    1. Google is a monopoly because they were the first to get it right, they opened the code, and they managed to make marketing a SMALL portion of their search results.
    2. Microsoft and Yahoo and the rest of the SE's are sitting shotgun because they insist on "entertaining" rather than providing usable search data. ("Look at the pretty pictures, are you sure you don't need to buy this thingy?")
    3. If the Wolfram/Alpha product is as extensible as it is touted to be, then the potential for monetizing search processes is astronomical, and will be stunningly profitable for Wolfram, but still, it will be a diminishing group on the bell curve (the opposite end of the dial from yahoo/msn SE users... )
    4. The only way to chip away from Google's slice is to out-google them. The key is simplicity and making something simpler than a blank screen with a search bar is tough. Copy their model, stop trying to ram random crap down my throat and answer my question efficaciously with minimal intrusion and flashing banner ads.
    • RE: The Question is??

      Without being so loquacious, just what is your question? Mine is simple. Will this be an academia app only?
      El Condor