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Technology & Innovation

Successor to Semantic Web Not Only For Nerds

You may have heard about Wolfram Alpha, tech savant Stephen Wolfram’s new query-answering search engine. And if you follow gadget and tech reviews, you’ve probably read about what the engine can’t do, despite it’s immense potential.

The first iteration of Wolfram Alpha is somewhat unwieldy–especially if you’re used to searching with more traditional engines like Google. The other frequent complaint is that it is long on statistical and scientific answers and short on pop cultural ones, bringing up only the bare bones bio on famous people and places. Wired complained that Wolfram Alpha is not “cool.” 

Wired is right. It isn’t cool.
Wolfram Alpha isn’t built to give you your horoscope. It’s not built to find you YouTube clips of Susan Boyle or dancing babies. And as PC Magazine notes, it’s not built for vanity searches. Unlike Google, Wolfram Alpha has never heard of me, and it probably has never heard of you either. 
Surely all the hype about its release occulded some of its limitations. Some said it could be the Google or Wikipedia killer, and Stephen Wolfram wasn’t shy about his goal of creating a superior repository of 3.0 knowledge.

The thing to keep in mind, however, is that Wolfram doesn’t think like most other people. The kind of knowledge he’s interested in–questions that have real factual or mathematical answers–are what his search engine is all about. Scientists and mathematicians will make great use of this rapid and reliable encyclopedia cum calculator, probably by asking questions that most of us would never think to ask, as PC World points out. In short, it creates new answers to computational questions, rather than scouring the web for already existing information.
A non-scientist probably won’t be able to understand some of the results Wolfram Alpha finds, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful for the rest of us. As a lover of useless or mostly useless information, I get a kick out of the fact that the search engine can tell me within moments that I’m 9,166 days old, that Mercury’s distance from Earth is .551 AU and that the element praseodymium ranks 37th in abundance in the planet’s crust, but only 51st in abundance in the universe.

As Wolfram demonstrated in a presentation aired by Big Think, you could look up your hourly salary and the engine will tell you how much you’ll gross in a week, a month or a year. Other engines could get this information, but not in the direct, just-the-facts-please way Wolfram’s engine brings it to you. 

Wolfram Alpha is far from complete and requires something of a learning curve to master. But don’t bash it because it’s unapologetically nerdy. No one designed it to be hip.


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