I have been waiting for the release of Wolfram Alpha for some time now. From the trend analysis graph below (taken with the SM2 social media analyser) you can see that there was a hype in early March, which now, as the release approaches cooled off a bit. Let’s see if this jumps up again, when Alpha is released later this month. A preview of it was given recently by Stephen Wolfram himself and it does allow for some high expectations.
So, you may be asking what added benefits will Alpha or any similar tool bring to the users. Here is a short comparison with traditional search tools.
When you type in a few words into Google, Yahoo and companions, they will throw back not answers but web pages at you, indiscriminate of their quality or who produced it, or whether it is even in the slightest related to your question. The principle here is the lost-and-found approach. Say, you forgot to bookmark an interesting page. You can retrieve it by typing in items you remember and hopefully Google will find the page for you. This is similar to a telephone directory. Look up a name and voila there’s the number and address.
Not only is Wolfram Alpha as easy to use as Google & Co, it also uses authoritative databases. For learners this is quite an important feature, because you receive information not from everyone and their auntie, but from qualitative sources. It may not be without fail, but certainly is an improvement, if you want to gain fact-based knowledge.
A practical example would be to type in “spread of swine flu” where Alpha would present you with data from the WHO and government health organisations, instead of people blogging that their dog has caught the disease too. The data is digested internally and graphically represented, instead of showing the mere database fields in a table. Looks like the knowledge engine is also capable of mashing and merging data from different sources. This is highly sophisticated.
By contrast, traditional search engines would disect the query into individual unconnected items so you would find in between the results for the above query pages on “spread” (on a bread), “swine”, and “flu”. Alpha has the ability through sophisticated algorithms to understand better the semantics of the actual question.
Google, of course, also just released a new feature that semantically presents data, unfortunately currently only for the US. But this indicates that we can expect more of this kind coming up. It is certainly the way to go, but does not make the old searches redundant. Instead it fills a niche that will be especially beneficial for those seeking to enhance their knowledge in a more productive and efficient way, but also perhaps based on more trustworthy information.