Getting what you ask for

The man who invented the Mathematica computer software has developed a search engine that understands and responds to ordinary language in the same way a person does, but is it a ‘Google Killer’?

Tags: USA
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By  Gareth Van Zyl Published  May 3, 2009

Dr Stephen Wolfram, the developer of Mathematica and A New Kind of Science, is getting ready to launch a project this month called Wolfram Alpha, a ‘computational knowledge engine’ that understands and responds to ordinary language in the same way a person does.

It uses a technique known as ‘natural language processing’ to return answers and this allows users to ask questions of the tool using normal, spoken language rather than specific search terms.
For instance, a search such as "who was the president of Brazil in 1923?" will return the answer "Artur da Silva Bernardes".

It’s said that Wolfram Alpha will not only give a straight answer to questions but it will also produce a page of related information, much of which is ‘curated’ or assessed first by experts.

According to Dr Stephen Wolfram, its real innovation is its ability to work things out "on the fly". So, if you ask it to compare the height of Mount Everest to the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, it will tell you. Or if you ask it what the weather was like in London on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated, it will apparently cross-check and provide the answer.

Overall, this new search engine is an incredible feat but I doubt that it deserves the ‘Google Killer’ label that some are attaching to it, because it’s clear that Wolfram Alpha is going to target academics and professionals. It isn’t that great at searching popular culture info (a search for Hip Hop star 50 Cent, for example, apparently churns out a result related to hard currency).

What makes it even more niche is that it seems as if it’s going to be geared at primarily English speakers while Google, on the other hand, has capabilities that include taking other languages into consideration, such as Arabic speakers.

Finally, this whole project and the re-emergence of talk of a ‘Google Killer’ (the likes of which were seen last year just before the introduction of the dismal search engine that is Cuil) raises a further question: does Google need a strong competitor? Are we as internet users generally happy with Google, or if there were an alternative, would we be willing to use it? I quite like the centrality that Google offers – it just helps one keep one’s internet space more organised and I think any new search engine on the market will battle to top that.

I think that the new search tool is looking as if it will be an interesting online search tool, but it is not a ‘Google Killer’. If anything, it will most probably only be a matter of time before the multi-billion dollar machine that is Google will try to buy it out.

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