New knowledge tool understands questions, instead of just searching, according to controversial inventor Stephen Wolfram
A new information tool that understands and answers queries, instead of searching web pages, Wolfram|Alpha has been launched by the controversial UK-born physicist and mathematician Stephen Wolfram.
Alpha is not a “search engine” but a “computational knowledge engine”, or “answer engine”, which understands questions and looks for answers in a curated database of information.
This makes it more like computers portrayed in 1960s science fiction machines, says the site’s London-born creator Stephen Wolfram, whose career includes work on particle physics as a teen prodigy at Oxford University, and symbolic manipulation at Caltech, and a controversial theory that the universe is best described by simple mathematical systems, called cellular automata.
The Wolfram|Alpha “knowledge engine” is powered by Wolfram’s widely-appreciated symbolic manipulation software, Mathematica, and has a long-term goal “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone,” said Wolfram in a statement.. “We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything”.
For example, users can choose to type in “2+2” and be given the answer “4” but the site will also answer much more complex mathematical and logical equations, using the Mathematica software, to provide statistical and geographic information and even compare data sets. Typing in “K2 and Everest” for example brings up information on the heights of both mountains, as well as a map of where they are relative to each other and information on atmospheric pressure and density.
The site is being supported by the world’s 66th largest supercomputer, built out of Dell hardware by a company called R Systems, according to a statement issued last week. The machine can cope with around 39.6 trillion mathematical operations per second.
The Wolfram platform is made up of several layers of technology, according to its inventors. “There are many parts to it, each with significant innovations. Four key general areas are the data curation pipeline, the algorithmic computation system, the linguistic processing system, and the automated presentation system.”
As for the future of the platform, its makers claim that Wolfram|Alpha will be much more than a website. “Wolfram|Alpha is being introduced first in the form of the wolframalpha.com website. But Wolfram|Alpha is really a technology and a platform that can be used and presented in many different ways. Among short-term plans are developer APIs, professional and corporate versions, custom versions for internal data, connections with other forms of content, and deployment on emerging mobile and other platforms,” according to a statement on the Wolfram|Alpha site.
Wolfram divides his time between practical business initiatives like Alpha and Mathematica, and more theoretical work. His cellular automata theory, published in his 2002 book, A New Kind Of Science, spawned controversy by claiming the universe is best explained in terms of very simple mathematical models, because it is fundamentally digital in nature.