Wolfram Alpha knows the answer

As “social media” canters toward becoming “the media” there’s been plenty of chatter about which search engine is going to knock Google off the top spot. Twitters deep link search capabilities have people speculating over the potential of socially driven search engines including us here at fluid. The tides of search are definitely turning, while Google gets attacked on one side by early adopting social search engines, there’s new threat in town which could loosen Google’s death grip on data and its name is Wolfram Alpha.

It’s not really a search engine, we’re not really sure what you’d classify it as, but as far as we know it’s entirely unique. On their site it’s defined as a computational answer engine, and for the moment that’s a good enough description. Type in a question and expect Wolfram Alpha to offer some sort of answer. Does that mean you can type in “What colour eyes does my cat have?” and expect it to know? No it doesn’t. Wolfram Alpha uses structured and curated data which allows for that data to be computed on the fly and the colour of your cats eyes hasn’t been deemed important enough for WA to know. Google takes a question and tries to match it up to the best answer it has in it’s monolithic database, Wolfram Alpha can generate that answer itself.

Let me give you an example. You can type into WA “length of railways in Europe” and based on the data it has in its database, it will calculate the total length of the railways in Europe and deliver the answer. Interesting. Well how about we take that result and mash it together with some other data in their database. Is there a correlation between GDP and railway length? Just type in the two queries you’d like to compare and WA will do the rest. So I enter the query “GDP in Europe railway length” and to my (and I hope to your) utter astonishment, Wolfram Alpha then computes that query and plots the data on the fly. Turns out there IS a relation between how long your railways are and GDP.

europe-gdp-length

http://www24.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=GDP+in+Europe+railway+length

What about the weather on the date you were born? Or the weather on the date a famous person was born? What about the unemployment rate in a country of your choosing? For example, did you know that the unemployment rate in Detroit is 23.2%! Well Wolfram Alpha knows, all you needed to do was ask. Sitting in front of the search query box can be a little off putting, “what on earth can I type in here?” you might wonder. If that has crossed your mind take a look at their examples by topic page where you can get a good understanding of what WA is capable of. A quick browse shows that WA can answer complicated mathematical problems including geometry, trigonometry, and Algebra. It has a good database of physics data, including mechanics, quantum theory and relativity. It knows plenty of historical dates, anthropology, weather forecasts, weather history, health and nutrition, travel, geography, money and finance, the list goes on and on.

There’s a whole number of things you can ask Wolfram Alpha and get some really meaningful responses but it’s entirely reliant on the data it has in its structured database. It’s certainly not the all seeing knowing computer of dreams just yet, but it’s obvious there’s plenty room for it to scale up that way. The structure is in place for this to have a massive impact as an educational tool, it’s useful for the most highest of high brow queries, and scales right down for use in primary schools. What does red mixed with blue produce? Wolfram Alpha can calculate it with this query.

redblue

It’s a shame they went with such an intimidating name, it sounds like a vietnam war game from the sega mega drive era, hardly the rosy “come and use me I’m fun” image that Google projected. Despite it’s definite branding problems Wolfram Alpha has truly astonoshing potential, with a few improvements in understanding queries and a constant stream of up to date structured data it could soon be as much a household name as Wikipedia. We’re in the process of developing some really interesting WA queries, so if you have any that you like, let us know in a comment.

Phil Harper - Social Media Consultant