Test drive of WolframAlpha

I just heard about WolframAlpha from Steve Graham of the U of Chicago Computation Institute, a smart software guy not easily impressed.  Essentially, he said “you’d better see this.”  So I checked it out.  Here’s my first impression.image

WolframAlpha presents a Google-like text entry field, wherein one enters subject matter or a formula.  The application provides “computational” information in response.  Cursory reading of its About section reveals the intent to provide not only look-up data, but computed knowledge, things that can be mathematically or algorithmically derived from the associated data.

Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.

They have a flash video that shows off compelling capabilities.

Some of what it can do is a bit like the lesser-known functions of Google in returning the results of mathematical equations or giving quantitative equivalencies (e.g., try typing “90 hectares in square miles”).  Give it more latitude, and it will surprise with concise presentations of relevant data.  Example when entering “next total solar eclipse Seattle.”


But after fiddling with it for 30 minutes, I found that my particular areas of interest correlated with an echoing lack of anything.  I tried solar vs. wind, Acer PC netbook share, top brands, Ford Motor Company share, and many more.  Nada.  Since…

Wolfram|Alpha aims to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels.

…they have a lot of work to do.  Although for mathematicians and geneticists, I’m prepared to believe it rules.  Given the academic pedigree of those involved, I thought “OK, let’s try a more college oriented computational knowledge challenge.”  For the health conscious college kid looking at calorie tradeoffs, bingo!…


Translation:  one case of Bud has the same calorie count as 17 strawberry (frosted) Pop-Tarts.

They do call it “Alpha,” and they do say there is much work to be done, so I’ll reserve judgement.  But I at least tried testing the obvious question:  is WolframAlpha a threat to Google as a mainstream tool?  I used the #2 Google search term from 2008 on both apps, and got the following results.



Verdict:  Google is safe for now.  Wolfram needs to be careful not to reach a broad audience until he’s got broad topics covered.  Initial frustration will substantially delay retrial among the masses.  But, if you are a higher echelon scientist or technophile, you will probably geek out over this.


3 Responses to “Test drive of WolframAlpha”

  1. 1 norham May 16, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    It is not, and doesn’t claim to be, a search engine. So why the F would you type “facebook” in W|A and Google to compare the output??

    As to some of your other inputs, while it is an alpha it will never be a mind reader even after another 10 years of intensive work: eg. “Ford Motor Company share”

    What does that mean? Your blog readers who understand English don’t know what you mean so why would you expect a computer to know? share price, market share of cars sold, market share based on revenue. Try being a bit more specific and thoughtful about how to enter stuff to be parsed and you might get better output. Alternatively, less is more. Just type “Ford Motor Company” and see what you get. …or be even more terse and type “Ford”

    …but it is an alpha.

    • 2 Craig Merrigan May 17, 2009 at 6:19 am

      Norham, fair point on Facebook, as people enter that term in Google looking for the login page, not info on Facebook. But upgrade my test to “Obama,” the #1 term, and you get his full name, date and place of birth. Nothing else. So here’s my point: Google is used to find websites, AND to find information (delivered through other websites). If W|A seeks to supply information/knowledge, it competes against Google. And if it returns almost nothing on the top topics people are thinking about, that is a problem for broad adoption.

      If people insist WolframAlpha is in a different category than search, OK. But in that case, it should not have a query interface that looks exactly like Google, and it should describe its category in a better, plain language fashion.

      BTW, I tried, before writing my post, umpteen permutations of “market share,” category market share in PC and auto businesses, brand value, PC market information, solar electricity, wind, coal, specific and unspecific criteria. I really got next to nothing. Mostly statements that W|A didn’t know what to do.

      • 3 norham May 17, 2009 at 8:31 am

        My point is that no matter what sort of interface the thing has*, if people go to use it and don’t know what it is, they will be disappointed. Same goes with anything else in life. If you see some red sauce and expect ketchup but get chilli you will be disappointed, but don’t blame the manufacturer, the fault lies in not reading the label before using the product.

        The “About” and “FAQ” sections, reachable from the menu tabs, and the example page clearly demonstrate what is currently possible and what is not, as well as what the aims of the project are.

        Frankly, given the aims of the project, I’m surprised you got anything for “Obama” other than maybe birthday, but presumably they added stuff like that to keep people (moderately) happy.

        * one difference with the Google query interface is that in W|A you click on an “equals” sign, which is consistent with the objective of providing a computation engine rather than a search engine. It aims to compute stuff.

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