May 27, 2009

A New Search Engine for an Old Problem

Posted in Science & Technology tagged , , , , , at 11:25 am by M L Clark

Yes, this is about Wolfram|Alpha. For those of you who’ve heard nothing of this search engine yet, let me answer your first question upfront: Wolfram|Alpha shouldn’t be compared to Google; they’re apples and oranges in the world of internet data-trawling.

What, then, is Wolfram|Alpha, and why on earth would it be useful when we already have Google? I’d usually tell people to go look for themselves: from the main page, for instance, it’s clearly identified as a “computational search engine.” But what does that mean? Doesn’t Google already use algorithms for its searches? And though the About page provides a little more insight, it still stymied a few people I’ve already introduced to the website. Such confusion isn’t surprising, either, when you take a good look at how expansive the language is:

Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.

I have to smile at this kind of language: it reminds me very much of my own writing, which though intending to convey a lot of information, might be considered so complexly worded as to limit, instead of enhancing, general knowledge about the topic at hand. (I’m working on it!)

And, alack, there is no Simple Wikipedia entry to explain this new site in layman’s terms. Even Wolfram|Alpha itself, though designed in part for comparative queries, lists only a few rudimentary details when tasked to explain what makes it different from Google.

So. If you’ll permit the blind to lead the blind, here’s Wolfram|Alpha in a nutshell:

  • It does not search web pages. You will not get top hits. You will not get related searches. At present, while the system learns, even misspelling something will give you limited returns.
  • It provides, instead, listings — singular or comparative. If you want to see which of two buildings is tallest, or what gravity is on Jupiter, or the basic facts about lithium, Wolfram|Alpha is for you.
  • It is, in other words, just the facts. No blog commentary. No video response. No forums or wikis in sight. Pulling from hard data sources, Wolfram|Alpha provides the basics about anything that can be quantified and computed, in whatever ways are available for said thing to be computed. Truly, anything: Here’s the entry for god.
  • Pursuant to this, Wolfram|Alpha can respond to questions that have concrete, fact-based answers. For instance, it can answer with relative ease “Why is the sky blue?”, What is the gestation period of a human?”, and “What is ten times the surface area of the moon?” And for those of you wondering if this means Wolfram|Alpha doesn’t know the meaning of life, think again.
  • So what on earth is this good for? In an age of sprawling participatory encyclopedias, interactive learning through participation on internet forums, and a whole slew of multimedia ventures — to say nothing of Google itself, which commingles basic search functionality with meta-searching, specialized searches (books, shopping, blogs, news), interactive maps and more — do we really need a website that provides us with “just the facts”?

    Heck. Yes.

    It may come as a surprise, but there are still a great many websites engaged in the whole search engine struggle for survival. There’s Google, of course, and Yahoo, but also — an underdog created by a former Googler who grew dissatisfied with how big the company had grown. (I, personally, have trouble believing anyone would give up access to their incredible catering services.) is said to accumulate and store information more efficiently, by linking and dropping similar subject hits on the same computer, so future search bots can find the bulk of their search results in one location. It also has a different layout, prioritizing the presentation of more content from each search result on the search results page. The comments on this Slashdot entry, however, match my own feelings of being underwhelmed by the quality of its search results.

    And then there are niche market tools like, which searches the internet for blog posts relating to any topic in question, and Google minus Google, a filter for web searchers tired of seeing Google subsidiary sites (YouTube, Blogger, Knol, etc) prioritized in their searches. Further amendments, like filtering out Wikipedia from search results, are also present — which in my opinion is a nice touch.

    In short, a great many websites are geared towards making the vast stores of information on the internet as accessible as possible by ranking other websites on the basis of information quality and relevance. In doing, so, however, the very definitions of quality and relevance have changed dramatically from the notions they imbued years earlier, in the heyday of Altavista and AskJeeves. How could they not, when far from just being a tool for education the internet exploded into the complex social realm it now is?

    So now, perhaps, the most accurate information about a subject is not foremost on a search list about it: now, perhaps, it has been supplanted by the most popular website other people visited in relation to that topic. And the most relevant information about another topic might easily be transposed by the most popular piece of entertainment riffing off its theme. And, of course, there still lies the question of Wikipedia: Should it come first in Google searches; is it always the most accurate response to whatever query you may have typed in; are more accurate responses buried farther down the list?

    While there is no discounting the incredible developments we’ve made in expanding internet functionality — day in and day out adding to the human element of online operations — it also cannot be denied that there will always be a need for straight answers, too. Think of Wolfram|Alpha as a reminder, then, that for all our dallying in the online realm there still exists a real world — a concrete place with numerous quantifiable attributes just waiting to be described.

    A world that will always await us, should we ever go offline.