Wolfram preps natural-language ”computational knowledge engine”

Many have tried and failed to outdo Google in the web search market. With the Wolfram|Alpha “computational knowledge engine,” Wolfram Research won’t be going head-to-head with the search behemoth. However, it might end up supplanting Google for many uses.

Nova Spivack, CEO of Twine maker Radar Networks, had a two-hour chat with Stephen Wolfram about the upcoming service, and he has detailed his findings in a long article. In essence, Wolfram|Alpha will directly compute answers about a wealth of topics based on natural-language questions—sort of like a super-savant:

It doesn’t simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn’t just a giant database of knowledge, like the Wikipedia. It doesn’t simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents, like Powerset, for example.
Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions — like questions that have factual answers such as “What is the location of Timbuktu?” or “How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?,” “What was the average rainfall in Boston last year?,” “What is the 307th digit of Pi?,” “where is the ISS?” or “When was GOOG worth more than $300?”

Think about that for a minute. It computes the answers. Wolfram Alpha doesn’t simply contain huge amounts of manually entered pairs of questions and answers, nor does it search for answers in a database of facts. Instead, it understands and then computes answers to certain kinds of questions.

The service’s expertise will reportedly span topics like “technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, music, and more.” To make the endeavor possible, Wolfram Research has included “massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties, as well as data about the physical world.”

In the rest of his article, Spivack explores the differences between Wolfram|Alpha, Google, and other online tools. He also goes into a bit of detail about the Wolfram team’s work, how the service will deal with cases that lack a unanimous scientific consensus, and how it might evolve in the future. (Spivack expects Google may well attempt a buyout.)

If reading bores you and you’d rather just try the service for yourself, you’ll be able to do just that when Wolfram|Alpha opens to the public in May. A teaser page is already up right now at wolframalpha.com.

Comments closed
    • njsutorius
    • 11 years ago

    interesting.. i cant fathom on how it would work.. i mean as math grows more complex our sciences extend.. I mean shit look at what newton figured out.. but i mean i don’t even know how a group of humans could be so smart to create ai.. i mean in the end doesn’t it all boil down to alrogothms anyway? Do we get into the whole matrix debate? “electrical impulses to brain make you think its real…” lol

    • AMDisDEC
    • 11 years ago

    Are pink pickles pork?

    • calyth
    • 11 years ago

    From the looks of it, they’d need a theorem proving machine to actually calculate the answer. So what happens if you end up causing infinite recursion?

    More interesting yet, what if you ask it to spit out the unprovably true statement in a consistent system, a la Godel’s first incompleteness theorem?

    • Erebos
    • 11 years ago

    Q: What is your name?

    A: John Henry.

    (Somebody get Sarah Connor on the phone… :P)

      • not@home
      • 11 years ago

      I think there mascot should be Arnold Schwarzenegger.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 11 years ago

        Then I would totally ask it ‘Is that a tumor?’

    • willyolio
    • 11 years ago

    stupid intermittent internet connection making me double post.

    • willyolio
    • 11 years ago

    what is the correct answer to “do I look fat in this?”

      • lycium
      • 11 years ago

      “probably, else you wouldn’t seek reassurance”

      • Anomymous Gerbil
      • 11 years ago

      Her: Does this dress make my bum look big?

      Him: No, your huge arse makes your bum look big.

    • Krogoth
    • 11 years ago

    Does it mean that you have input the questions in form of 0s, 1s since it is the natural language for the computer?

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      Krogoth fails at title interpretation. Discuss.

        • ludi
        • 11 years ago

        Depends. Is that his natural language?

        Mine is a series of gutteral grunts mingled with snarling. If you would like to observe me actively speaking it, wake me before 8am.

        • Krogoth
        • 11 years ago

        Fails at recognizing a lame joke.

          • Meadows
          • 11 years ago

          At least you have some humility.

            • DrDillyBar
            • 11 years ago

            It did have an element of funny though.

    • Ashbringer
    • 11 years ago

    Why is it that cake hates ruffles?

    Answer: WTF?!

    • Farting Bob
    • 11 years ago

    Funny thing is if you ask any of the example questions in google 90% of the time the first result will give you the answer, often in the summary so you dont even need to open the page.

    I can see how this would be handy for more obscure questions or topics that just get spammed with news sites or shopping sites that you dont want.

    • odizzido
    • 11 years ago

    I wonder how accurate this will be for more than basic questions…

    • jsncable
    • 11 years ago

    I should have thought of this… to see if i can scare google into buying my company for millions before I become competition. All I need is a really good idea and post it here.

      • just brew it!
      • 11 years ago

      That was my first thought too. The primary goal of the people working on this is probably to get bought out by Google, then retire to a tropical island somewhere.

    • Meadows
    • 11 years ago

    What is the meaning of life?
    [impossibly long wait]
    42.

      • GFC
      • 11 years ago

      That made me giggle xD

    • floodo1
    • 11 years ago

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
    Skynet must be stopped!

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 11 years ago

      It took me a while to figure out what was going on there, but that last part is pretty funny.

        • Crayon Shin Chan
        • 11 years ago

        No, it’s not supposed to be funny. I picked that one because it goes well with Arstechnica’s final sentence on the issue – that you can’t overestimate the computer’s intelligence.

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      Good, old social engineering at work. AI scripts are simply no match for it.

    • Murso24
    • 11 years ago

    STAR TREK anyone??

    • TaBoVilla
    • 11 years ago

    you know. . . .the true point of inflection, is not when computers will answer our questions. . it’s gonna be the first time a computer like this asks a question. . . . (/[

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 11 years ago

    User: HOW IS BABBY FORMEd ?
    User: How girl get pregnant?

    Wolfram: __________

      • Zymergy
      • 11 years ago

      LOL!
      User: Is it true that Alcohol is the real cause of most pregnancies?
      User: I am a man, so why do I have nipples?
      User: Why does Daddy come home late from work? -Mommy won’t say…
      User: If train A leaves station A at 80 mph and train B leaves station B at 95 mph and the people on train B are eating lasagna but they run out of garlic bread what color are the conductor’s shoes?
      ….

    • ew
    • 11 years ago

    I’m going to ask it if the cake is a lie.

      • TaBoVilla
      • 11 years ago

      or if she really is alive, . ..

    • ludi
    • 11 years ago

    Question:) Dudez!…I like totally forgot mai homework and needz capital of timbuktu k thx bai!

    Wolfram:) Parse Error. Learn English, nitwit.
    Wolfram:) Redirecting user to Ask Jeeves in 3…2…

    • Anomymous Gerbil
    • 11 years ago

    Read the Ars write-up, they’re very skeptical.

    • shank15217
    • 11 years ago

    I am not sure how useful this is, unless wolfram research releases the methodology of how it found the answer, like what sources it used to get the facts and how it put those facts together. When you search for a question in google you get pages with the answer and generally also how the answer was derived.

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    Is this related to the OpenCYC project at all?

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      Yeah, that was one of the first things I though of too. They’ve been working on that for a /[

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