Search engine Wolfram Alpha focuses on great answers

Wolfram Alpha can't help you find movie times, the best deal on a netbook, or a link to the latest viral video like Google can

The natural-language search engine Wolfram Alpha is expected to launch May 18 and more details about the site are emerging. Most notably, Stephen Wolfram, Wolfram Alpha's creator and the brain behind the computational software Mathematica, says his site is not the next Google killer, but an add-on for your Web searches.

Wolfram Alpha can't help you find movie times, the best deal on a netbook, or a link to the latest viral video like Google can. That's because Wolfram Alpha doesn't index Web pages like a traditional search engine. Instead, the site processes your natural-language query against its database of facts that have been gathered, fact-checked, and organized by Wolfram Alpha staff, according to The New York Times.

When I first covered Wolfram Alpha in March of this year, I said the search engine could only answer a fact-based question that has a specific answer. However, Wolfram Alpha doesn't just spit out one result but compiles a "mini dossier on the subject compiled in real time...It's like having a squad of Cambridge mathematicians and CIA analysts inside your browser," according to Wired.

While having your own electronic research assistant sounds impressive, the site's capabilities do have limits. The Times points out that Wolfram Alpha can tell you how far the Moon is from the Earth and the average body mass index of a 40-year old male, but the search engine is stumped by simple queries like "obesity rate" or "housing prices New York."

Wolfram Alpha's creator, Stephen Wolfram maintains that Wolfram Alpha is a work in progress that will never be a complete storehouse of knowledge since human understanding is continually evolving. Wolfram has even built the notion of constant change right into the search engine's name with the term Alpha, which tech companies typically use to identify a product in its early development phase.

Of course Wolfram's qualifier of "change" could also be a cop out in case the product fails. Wolfram Alpha claims to be the first search engine capable of delivering relevant and specific results based on a natural language search query. But that claim has been made before by many different search engines including Powerset (which has since been bought by Microsoft), Ask (twice) and most recently Google. None of these sites, and many others, have truly delivered natural-language results, and I have my reservations about Wolfram Alpha.

Wolfram's new search engine has been getting a lot of attention lately and some positive early reviews. But the true test of its effectiveness will come when Wolfram Alpha is available to the public in the next few weeks at Wolframalpha.com. So what do you say -- will Wolfram Alpha be the answer to all your queries or just another over-hyped search engine?

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Ian Paul

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