Smarter Than Google

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 5, 2009

I am going to love Wolfram Alpha, and within short order, I am going to wonder how I ever got along without it.

Here is why:

What might Wolfram’s system do that Google can’t? Say you wanted to know how much cholesterol and saturated fat lurked in a slab of your grandmother’s cornbread. You’d transcribe its ingredients from her yellowed index card to an online query bar, and Alpha would run computations and produce a USDA-style nutrition label. “Sure, you could go to Google, find out calories in a standard egg, and so on–but what a pain in the ass it would be!” exclaimed Wolfram Research cofounder Theodore Gray. “You’d need the data. And you’d need the data to be in forms that can be readily converted, if need be. And you’d need to add them up. You can do it, just as in earlier decades–you could go to the library to find a reference, and today you can go to Google or another search engine to get started. But we make it far easier.” With a conventional search engine, he added, “enter ‘one cup of sugar, one pound of flour,’ and it completely throws up all over your screen.”

This is one example of the sort of thing Alpha was meant to do: provide deeper, more specific, and more graphically dressed-up answers to certain kinds of questions–though a limited set at first. Queries for “D# major” would produce graphics of the musical scale, queries for “Venus” would produce detailed, current maps of the night sky; queries on pairs of companies would produce comparative charts and graphs. It would add extra information: a search for “New York London distance” would produce the answer in miles, kilometers, and nautical miles; a map showing the flight path; and a comparison of how long it would take a jet, a sound wave, and a light beam to make the trip. Ask it about a word (prefaced by the word word), and it would generate etymology tables and synonym networks. To do these sorts of things, it would start with math and science data sets and formulas already held in Mathematica, and build from there. Some of the new information, such as government data on food, would just need minor reorganization. That’s what Williams was doing. Other kinds, such as real-time stock data, required licensing. Still others, such as data on aircraft, would be gathered from open Web sources such as Wikipedia and Freebase, and cleaned up–curated.

All hail the Internet. Again.

Somewhat off topic: Take a look into the story, and you find this picture:

thedore-grays-awesome-desk

I need to get that desk.

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