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May 25, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Wolfram Alpha: not a superhero, but totally awesome anyway.


If you haven’t heard of Wolfram Alpha before, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s the name of a superhero, or perhaps the codename for some shadowy government task-force. This is because Wolfram Alpha (aka WolframAlpha or Wolfram|Alpha, after its creator Stephen Wolfram) is pretty preposterously named for what it actually is—although what it actually is is all kinds of awesome.

Wolfram Alpha describes itself as a “computational knowledge engine”. Wikipedia calls it an “answer engine”.

It’s kind of like a search engine, in that it takes user input via a text field, and outputs data in response. But unlike search engines like Google, which output lists of web pages that contain the search term and link to other pages that contain the search term, Wolfram Alpha outputs answers in response to questions that users input.

It’s kind of like a database, in that it contains a collection of data accessible by searching. But unlike simply looking answers up in a database, Wolfram Alpha can compute answers to questions. In addition to data and information, it contains algorithms and computational methods, and allows data sets to be combined.

Neither a search engine nor a database can correctly respond to your request to compare the GDPs of New Zealand and Australia over the last 10 years, interpret a genome sequence, or simplify a quadratic equation, unless, in the case of the search engine, there’s a web page with this information on it, or in the case of a database, that specific information is contained in it.

And herein lies the awesomeness of Wolfram Alpha: it can answer these questions for you and more. Wolfram Alpha contains trillions of pieces of data, and over 50,000 algorithms and models, all of which come from verified sources and are chosen and managed by domain experts. It is built on Mathematica, which is a computational software programme for tasks like mathematical computation, modelling and simulation.

I should qualify my statement that Wolfram Alpha can answer your questions; Wolfram Alpha can answer your query if it interprets it correctly in the first place. It is still easy to confuse, and you may have to rephrase your query several times to get a sensible answer, or any answer at all.

To shamelessly plaigarise UK magazine New Scientist, Wolfram Alpha can correctly interpret “25 million 1945 US dollars in 2008” and give the answer “US$299 million in 2008”, as well as the average rate of inflation over this time period, and a nifty graph showing the purchasing power history of the US dollar. But type in “1945 $25 million in 2008”, and Wolfie interprets your query as 1945 X NZ$25 million X inch X 2008 to give the answer $97.64 trillion inch, using the fantastic unit “inch New Zealand dollar”. Wolfram Alpha even converts it into “centimetre New Zealand dollars” and “metre New Zealand dollars” for you! Neat.

But what about the really important stuff? When I input “Skynet”, Wolfram Alpha interpreted my query as a request for information about the net income for some company called Skyline. So, no hit there. When I typed “Cyberdyne” into the search bar, Wolfram Alpha told me it “wasn’t sure what to do with [my] input”. This made me a little bit suspicious about whether or not Wolfram Alpha was holding some important information back from me, especially after I asked it when Judgement Day would be, and got a similar response. Scarily, when I typed in “Cyberdyne Industries” I promptly got a pop-up window which started “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Eek.

The long term goal of Wolfram Alpha, as set out on the site, is to “make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.” At the moment, it can be frustratingly stupid, but still hours of fun.

Check it out, and you’ll find more charts and graphs than you’ll ever need, and have hours of fun confusing Alpha with straightforward queries.

Check out Wolfram Alpha at

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