Anthony Doesburg: Wolfram promises new way to probe the web

The launch a fortnight ago of WolframAlpha, hailed by many as a new Google, has set the technology world alight.

It's the creation of Stephen Wolfram, a British-born scientist who made a fortune from Mathematica, a computational program - and programming language - he came up with more than 20 years ago.

Mathematica is not his only claim to fame. In 2002 Wolfram published A New Kind of Science, described by Arthur C. Clarke as "Stephen's magnum opus". Clarke went on to say it could be the book of the century.

Wolfram reputedly led a nocturnal existence for years while writing the book, the purpose of which was to "introduce a new kind of science that is based on ... general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs". The programs might be simple, but explaining the idea took 1200 pages.

Even before his adult endeavours, Wolfram had distinguished himself, publishing his first scientific paper at 15 and getting a PhD by 20. Little wonder, then, that WolframAlpha has got tongues wagging.

The better-informed are avoiding comparisons between WolframAlpha and Google, says Conrad Wolfram, the director of international strategy for Wolfram Research, the Champaign, Illinois, company started and led by his older brother.

"Basically this is a new way to interact with knowledge and information, particularly structured information. It is different from a search engine," says Conrad Wolfram, who is based in Britain. "It looks similar on the web - you've got an input box on your browser - but when you type into it it goes away and tries to understand the meaning of what you've typed and compare that with data we've sucked in, curated, added meaning to and used Mathematica to compute the result from. So it tries to get you one answer, not a list of links to one."

A test drive is the best way to grasp the difference. Typing in "what is new zealand meat production?" returns a total figure for 2006, a graph showing annual production from 1980, a breakdown of the total into meat types, and production per day and second in various units. Tag "versus australia" on to the end of the question and New Zealand and Australia's output are displayed side by side.

What about GDP? Asking "new zealand gdp versus australia" gives latest figures for each country, tells us Australia's is 624.9 per cent bigger than ours and that our GDP per head is US$27,210 ($44,107) versus Australia's US$35,200. If it's any consolation, unemployment here is lower - 4 per cent to Australia's 4.5 per cent.

An online demo starring Stephen Wolfram shows numerous other impressive examples. There are many queries, though, to which the response is "WolframAlpha isn't sure what to do with your input". These are, says Conrad Wolfram, early days.

"What we've released now is very much a work in progress. If people notice there isn't particular data for something, there could well be in the future."

WolframAlpha's breadth of answers may not amount to much yet, but what's striking is the way it presents results.

"People don't realise when we present the outcome of a query, we're building that output live, so we're figuring out automatically how to structure the output so it's easily readable," says Conrad Wolfram. Equally, it is very good at interpreting questions asked in ordinary English.

If it's misguided to make comparisons with Google, what about Wikipedia? A key difference, Conrad Wolfram says, is that all the answers that come out of WolframAlpha are based on data curated by Wolfram Research staff. That means it's not vulnerable to the mischievous editing of entries that sometimes afflicts Wikipedia.

Far from being the enemy, Conrad Wolfram points out that Sergey Brin was an intern at Wolfram Research before co-founding Google. If anything, he says, WolframAlpha is complementary to Google.

As they look for ways to make money from it, he doesn't rule out the possibility of licensing it to search engine operators - "we've been in contact with all the main players at the highest level" - and specialist information providers.

"Also we'll probably have professional versions that are subscription-based in due course." Not to mention sponsorships and advertising.

"I'm optimistic that it will be profitable very quickly."

Not that Stephen Wolfram would appear motivated by money. Mathematica, which has millions of worldwide users (New Zealand researchers among them), reportedly earns his company US$22 million a year.

His aim with WolframAlpha echoes the theme of A New Kind of Science: "To make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone." Arthur C. Clarke isn't around any longer to judge whether this magnum opus outdoes the earlier one.

But the user response since WolframAlpha's launch is certainly keeping everyone busy, says Conrad Wolfram. "Few people have had much sleep in the past week or two - it is overwhelming."



Q&A

WolframAlpha's responses to a few test questions were a mix of hits and misses



Q: Who is the Prime Minister of New Zealand?

A: John Key (plus the date he took office, and the names of his two predecessors).



Q: What is a hikoi?

A: "Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." And "did you mean what is a hindi?"



Q: What is a kiwi?

A: Lots of detail on the nutritional properties of kiwifruit. Nothing about birds.



Q: How big is New Zealand?

A: 268,680sq km.



Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland based technology journalist

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - South West

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

    £21000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - South East & East Anglia

    £60500 - £65500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global leading software co...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent