11 May 2009

Another search engine: WolframAlpha's on the way

Here comes WolframAlpha. Yes, I know. A strange name. I keep calling it WolfmanAlpha, but it is named after its creator Stephen Wolfram.

The new search engine, not yet open for public access, claims to answer a broad range of queries and everyone is waiting for it. Read all about it in Miguel Helft's story in the NY Times technology section here.

“I am not keen on the hype,” said Mr. Wolfram, a well-known scientist and entrepreneur and the founder of Wolfram Research, a company in Champaign, Ill., that has been quietly developing WolframAlpha.

Mr. Wolfram’s service does not search through Web pages, and it will not help with movie times or camera shopping. Instead it computes the answers to queries using enormous collections of data the company has amassed. It can quickly spit out facts like the average body mass index of a 40-year-old male, whether the Eiffel Tower is taller than Seattle’s Space Needle, and whether it is high tide in Miami right now.

WolframAlpha, which is expected to be available to the public at wolframalpha.com in the next week, is not a finished product. It is an early working version of a project that has been years in the making and will continue to evolve over years, if not decades. As such, there is much it cannot answer now.
Wolfram, according to the story, was a child prodigy who published his first paper on particle physics at 15, and is known for creating Mathematica, a math-formula software - way beyond the comprehension of Tracing the Tribe.

Helft writes that "the goal of creating a computer system that can answer questions has been a tantalizing but elusive pursuit for many computer scientists for more than four decades. Some veterans of the field say Mr. Wolfram may have come as close as anyone yet."

The story quotes several tech information people.

Google and Yahoo work by finding information that already exists online, locating Web pages that include key words and ranking them.

WolframAlpha doesn't gather data from the Web. Its knowledge base is made up of data gathered, verified and organized by about 100 employees at Wolfram Research over several years.

I wonder which employee was in charge of the genealogy category, or if it was deemed important enough to include.

Helft provided some samples on how it works:

When a user types in a query, WolframAlpha tries to determine the relevant area of knowledge and find the answers, often by performing calculations on its data. If you type “LDL 120,” it will return a graph showing the distribution of cholesterol levels among the United States population, and display the percentage of people above and below that figure. If you type “LDL 120 male 33,” it will adjust the results to focus on that gender and age group.

In response to “how far is the Moon from Earth,” WolframAlpha will calculate the exact distance based on an algorithm that computes the ever-changing distance between the two bodies. The engine that computes answers is largely built on Mathematica.
I'm waiting for the site to go public to test it on our favorite topic.

However, the reporter says that there are many queries it can't answer, "either because it does not understand the question or because it does not have the requisite data."

Wouldn't you love to have the job "teaching" the new search engine about genealogy?

Where do I sign up?

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