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Wolfram|Alpha – Answers, Not Just Search Results

June 27th, 2009

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While Bing, Microsoft’s revamped search engine, has been the big news item in search the past few weeks, only a few weeks earlier another search engine became available that has greater potential to change how searches are conducted in the future. That engine is Wolfram|Alpha

How is Wolfram|Alpha different?

To call Wolfram|Alpha a search engine is a bit of a misnomer. It is better described as a computational knowledge engine using systematic knowledge to generate results rather than returning links to pages like other search engines.

To simplify things a typical search engine takes your search term(s) and compares it to the immense directory of pages that the search engine has indexed, typically in the billions. Then using closely guarded algorithms the search engine outputs a list of links, the search results, that it thinks best matches your query. Wolfram|Alpha on the other hand generates its results by doing computations from its own internal database and outputs answers, not links. In the developers own terms, “Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. 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.”

Will Wolfram|Alpha replace your current search engine?

Wolfram|Alpha will not replace your current search engine of choice. A typical search will most likely produce the statement “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.” For example a search for “Halo 3” or “Black Table Lamps” will not produce any results (at least when I wrote this); however a search for quantifiable data yields excellent results blowing away the other search engines. For some great examples of what Wolfram|Alpha can do see the “New to Wolfram|Alpha?” sidebar on the right of the screen of the main screen.

While the average person may not find much use for it other than a novelty, it is Wolfram|Alpha’s ability to generate live and comparable results make it an excellent tool for any researcher or student. Wolfram|Alpha may not replace your current search engine but it represents a huge leap forward in our ability to obtain quantifiable data.

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