Wolfram Research founder Stephen Wolfram publicly debuted his company's forthcoming online "computational knowledge engine" Tuesday--but search Goliath Google launched a service of its own that bears significant resemblance.
The Wolfram Alpha engine is a Web service designed to process data from controlled, vetted sources of data--many not on the Web--then present the results in a way that lets people dig deeper into the subject. It's something of a cross between a graphing calculator, repositories of scientific data, and a system to interpret questions posed in human terms.
"Like interacting with an expert, it'll understand what you're talking about, do the computation, and present the results in such a way you'll be able to understand what the consequences are," Wolfram said in a talk at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society Tuesday.
For example, people can ask about the molecular weight of caffeine, about the location of a gene in the human genome, the number of people named Andrew born in a particular year, the amount of fish produced in France, the life expectancy of 40-year-olds, and the performance of Microsoft stock--and then dig into the results. The height of Mt. Everest can be expressed in terms of the length of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Wolfram has deep technical chops. He's a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient who got his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at age 20, founded Wolfram Research to commercialize mathematics software called Mathematica that can perform a wide variety of computational and graphing chores. He also spent a good portion of the 1990s writing "A New Kind of Science," a 1,200-page tome (also available online) that seeks to transform science by presenting a computational view of physics.
The Alpha site will be publicly available "in a few weeks," with free access to all users supported by sponsors and subscriptions for heavy-duty users who want the system to process their own data, Wolfram said.
But another similar service is available today: a Google feature that can search public data and present the results graphically.
"We just launched a new search feature that makes it easy to find and compare public data," Ola Rosling said of the service in a blog post. "The data we're including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers' salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on."