Today's focus: Wolfram|Alpha, brilliant but boring

Last week I pondered the nature of search, what it would mean to have a "better" search, and how when people have to make choices over things like which search service to use they tend to gravitate to that which they are most familiar with unless an alternative has an undeniable edge.

But even when you do have an edge there's a risk: Get the public interested and you have a shot at their attention. But should you get their attention and then disappoint them you are dead in the water and you might never get a second chance. Actually, make that "will probably never get a second chance".

This brings me to Wolfram Research and their brainchild, a new search service called Wolfram|Alpha.

Wolfram Research was co-founded by Stephen Wolfram, the creator of one of the greatest software tools ever made, Mathematica, and the author of "A New Kind of Science" (a provocative and philosophically puzzling treatise on mathematics). Mathematica is an incredibly powerful program that manipulates mathematical formulae and is part of the underpinnings of Wolfram|Alpha.

Wolfram|Alpha, which has been enthusiastically hyped by just about anyone with an opinion since it was first announced, is, in fact, fascinating. You can ask it mathematical questions that range from the simple, "what is the square root of 9" to more sophisticated ("integrate x^2 sin^3 x dx") to the downright gnarly and/or obscure ("Rydberg formula ni=2, nf=5") and get really useful results that include not only text answers but also formulae, graphs and links to resources.

Now if Alpha was just a scientific and mathematics search and calculation engine it would be impressive - there's nothing quite like it. But Wolfram has bigger dreams so you can ask it about towns, stocks, health and medicine, chemistry, physics, … a huge range of factual data.

Despite this remarkable range Alpha can also be surprisingly wrong; when I asked Alpha "what is the square root of minus 1" it answered the question "what is the square root of x minus 1" which was very disappointing.

I also asked "population CA NY FL" and Wolfram|Alpha produced several answers all relevant to the question but when I asked "population states" or "population of states" it produced only the standard fail message: "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input" along with a list of topics. It turns out that the correct question is "population of us states".

From this it is evident that one thing obviously lacking in Wolfram|Alpha is a natural language interface which means that the service's ability to satisfy casual, non-technical users is, at best, only fair.

A curious gimmick is that you can ask classic geek culture questions such as "What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow" … the answer is "there is unfortunately insufficient data to estimate the velocity of an African swallow (even if you specified which of the 47 species of swallow found in Africa you meant) (asked of a general swallow [but not answered] in Monty Python's Holy Grail.)" while and the answer to "What is the meaning of life" is, of course, 42. The engineers behind Wolfram|Alpha are obviously Monty Python fans.

Some commentators have tried to place Wolfram|Alpha as a "Google killer" but that is a complete fantasy, at least as the services works to date.

Here's my problem with Wolfram|Alpha: It is quite obviously brilliant and quite possibly ground-breaking but it is somehow boring or as a friend of mine commented "it's boring and boringly bad at explaining why it's boring."

I also suspect that for most people Wolfram|Alpha will be quite frustrating to use. If you're at college studying math or physics this service should be a godsend once you grok its query logic but the average Internet user who might want to know something like the population of states in the U.S. and leaves out the "U.S." will be disappointed.

Wolfram|Alpha is, without doubt, fascinating and intriguing but you can't help but wonder what it will be when it matures. Maybe by then it will be able to tell me what the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow actually is and do so in an interesting way.

Learn more about this topic

Wolfram Alpha: A test run

I am not smart enough for Wolfram Alpha

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