Anthony Doesburg: Wolfram promises new way to probe the web

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:45

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."


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

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