Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on May 18, 2009
I’ve been playing with Wolfram Research’s new Alpha research tool—I am deliberately not calling it a search engine—since it went public over the weekend, and it has left me with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is very clever and does things no other tool can. But on the other, I’m having a tough time figuring out just how most people would find it useful.
Alpha is more a database natural language query tool that a search engine, and it only knows what's in its databases. What it knows can be impressive. For example, I queried "seattle and timbuktu," and after it corrected the spelling to "Tombouctou," Alpha gave me, among other things, the population of the two cities, the distance between them, and the fact that the flying time for the trip is 12 hours, 5 minutes. This last bit of information is entirely theoretical, since I could not find any scheduled air service into Timbuktu, though you can fly to Bamako, Mali, about 500 miles away. Querying "next solar eclipse" told me there would be a total eclipse with a maximum duration of 6 minutes, 39 seconds visible from India and southern China on July 21.
But on less esoteric information--the sort of stuff you are likely to be looking for on the Web--Alpha doesn't do so well. "Flights from IAD to SFO" yield "Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your query," while "IAD to SFO" told me that Dulles and San Francisco International Airports are 2,419 miles apart.
As far as Alpha is concerned, "BlackBerry" is a kind of fruit and "iPhone" is a topic for future investigation. "Facebook" is a Web site with a 26.66 kilobyte home page containing 23 links, four images, and three forms. "Twitter" is an English word, whose first known use was in 1374.
While Alpha is admittedly still very much a work in progress, it's a little surprising that not even the whole Wolfram universe of data has been incorporated. For example, a search for "martingale" gave me meanings that described parts of a sailing ship and a horse's harness, but not the statistical term found in Wolfram's MathWorld.
In time, Alpha could become a very useful tool for researching facts, especially odd facts about the relationships among two or more things. Unlike many Web sites, it gives clear sources for its information and these sources are generally authoritative. But I think that others than students and researchers, most people are going to find it too quirky and limited in its scope to be of much practical use.