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WolframAlpha: A New Way To Search?

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on March 09, 2009

Using semantics—the meaning of words rather than just the words themselves—as the basis of Web search has been a prime goal of researchers for some time, but except for limited approaches, the idea has had trouble making it out of the lab. Now mathematician/computer scientist Stephen Wolfram thinks he has a better idea to improve search—though just what that is remains more than a bit obscure.

alpha_website.png Wolfram is famous as the inventor of Mathematica, the multi-faceted program that made the computer a useful tool for serious mathematics, and slightly notorious as the author of A New Kind of Science (NKS), a 1200-page tome that attempts to explain a vast array of natural phenomena in terms of cellular automata, simple mathematical rules that can lead to complex behavior.

As he explains in a blog post, Wolfram believes that computation, rather than semantic understanding, may be the key to better search, With the computational power of Mathematica and the "paradigm for understanding" of NKS, he writee, "I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable."

What does that mean? I have to admit I have no idea. But Wolfram is far too original and important a thinker to discard it as mere argle-bargle. Right now, if you go to the new WolframAlpha Web site, all you will see is the image above and a notice that the site is launching in May. I guess we'll have to wait a couple of months to find other whether A New Kind of Search will really unlock the secrets of the Web.

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Reader Comments

David Reiss

March 27, 2009 04:34 PM

Readers interested in Wolfram Alpha will might find my blog on the subject interesting. It's at


--David (the blog's author...)


May 16, 2009 05:11 PM

Nice idea, but is fairly limited database.
for example, I tried the following to find out the statistics for suicides off of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco:

Suicide Golden Gate Bridge

WolframAlpha responded with:

Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input.

I also entered a town in Alaska that I like since WolframAlpha exhorts the user to enter _any_ town.

Eek, Alaska

and again got:

Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input.

Perhaps one could marry the database of Yahoo,, and Google with WolframAlpha, then
maybe it would be able to answer some of these questions.

yes, I know that WolframAlpha is NOT intended to be a Google killer (I don't think there ever will be a Google killer for several decades to come), but I don't think it is ready for prime time now. Perhaps they need faster servers.

Some of my queries crashed their system.

Bruce Iehl

May 17, 2009 12:14 PM

Try this input (or your favorite example): "pe mcgraw-hill"

Which gave me: "Input interpretation: McGraw-Hill price to earnings ratio." along with the "Result: 12.01 (Thursday, May 14, 2009)" and the "History:" (a chart) and the (copyable plaintext): "minimum: 6.9888 Monday, Mar 9, 2009 | average: 19.443 | maximum: 27.878 Monday, Dec 18, 2006"

I also downloaded a pdf of the WolframAlpha results and saw related links. I also added the dates I wanted results for in later attempts.

Now try the same input with your favorite search engine.

Full disclosure: I am not currently trading equities but I may start again soon!

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