The next big thing in search?

The next big thing in search frequently sounds like the last next big thing in search and the one before that ... and Google.

So it was with more than my standard level of skepticism that I read Steven Levy's story in Wired today headlined: "Stephen Wolfram Reveals Radical New Formula for Web Search."

Wolfram, 49, is a former physicist, inventor of computational software called Mathematica and author of "A New Kind of Science." His search project is called Wolfram/Alpha:

The product of four years of development, Alpha is an engine for answers. Its ambition is to delve into "all the knowledge in the world," Wolfram says, to find and calculate information. Though Alpha's interface evokes Google - whose co-founder Sergey Brin once spent a summer interning for Wolfram - it's more like the anti-Google.

Type in a query for a statistic, a profile of a country or company, the average airspeed of a sparrow - and instead of a series of results that may or may not provide the answer you're looking for, you get a mini dossier on the subject compiled in real time that, ideally, nails the exact thing you want to know. It's like having a squad of Cambridge mathematicians and CIA analysts inside your browser.

The example cited in the article poses this question: How many Novel laureates were born under a full moon. Even if no one has ever bothered to make a list and publish it to the Internet, Alpha -- still a work in progress -- is supposed to be able to dip into relevant data sources and assemble an answer on the fly.

Next big thing in search? We'll see.

(Update: More examples from a New York Times story:

Mr. Wolfram's service does not search through Web pages, and it will not help with movie times or camera shopping. Instead it computes the answers to queries using enormous collections of data the company has amassed. It can quickly spit out facts like the average body mass index of a 40-year-old male, whether the Eiffel Tower is taller than Seattle's Space Needle, and whether it is high tide in Miami right now.

That will be handy if I'm ever 40 again and in a trivia contest on a Miami beach. ... I jest. Sounds cool.)

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