Computational knowledge engines: the search engine, evolved

A new search engine, known as Wolfram|Alpha has launched. It may be improper to refer to it as a search engine, as it refers to itself as a "computational knowledge engine".

The engine differs from a traditional search engine in that the goal of the engine is not only to make information accessible, but in the case of WolframAlpha, immediately computable.

To perhaps give a better explanation of what WolframAlpha is, let us walk through an average searching scenario. I stumble on the website, and in the search field I decide to type my city's name, Toronto.

If the website stumbled upon were Google, one would now have access to several pages referring to Toronto. If the engine stumbled upon was WolframAlpha, one would have immediate access to the populations (both overall and that of the metro core), local time, location in coordinates, satellite imagery, etc.

Now let's assume that one wanted to search for a specific date, such as a birthday. On Google, type the date and see a list of related pages and perhaps even some news articles, if the date is significant. On WolframAlpha, type the date and be presented with the date displayed in different formats, a time difference of the present moment to the entered date, a breakdown of which day and week the date landed upon within the year that was searched, any worldwide observances that fall on that day, notable events in history, sunrise and sunset information, and even information on the phase of the moon on that date.

The engine also does number crunching! WolframAlpha boasts the ability to compute ANY numerical problem.

Surely, this engine with all of its power still cannot compute the meaning of life, right? Wrong. It can, and lo and behold, the answer is still 42.

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In FF3.5 beta 4 it keeps giving an error saying there's a problem with one of their javascripts and offering to stop execution

The engine also does number crunching! WolframAlpha boasts the ability to compute ANY numerical problem.

Lies. I typed in "p = np?" and nothing came back.

Hmmm, the questions have to be too specific and precisely phrased. They made a lot of fuss about how it is able to interpret natural language, bit of a dissapointment that it really can't interpret anything except filter out words it "knows" about.

One might say that it is "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." (Samuel Johson)

Napalm Frog said,
Quite cool, but apparently 'green tea' is a movie...

What do you expect it to tell you about "green tea", though? I mean, giving you the data about the film of the same name isn't exactly wrong.

Too much hype. It looks like it can answer questions where the answer has been baked in to it. It's like a searchable encyclopedia combined with a calculator. Its like Google's calculator on steroids. Um since the answers are baked, it's really lacking in generality and feels weak.

There is a hand-made list of questions it can answer and math problems it can solve. It can't do anything else.

Pre-emptive comment:
1. It's not a search engine, it's a knowledge base. So it can't know how to make pizza, because that isn't research, and biased knowledge.
2. The current version is mostly focused for science.
3. It doesn't try to compete with Google.

As a service to compete with Google Calculator, I find it very impressive. Just compare currency conversions like "120 USD in CAD", conversions between numeric systems. It can of course do other fun things, like tell the weather when you were born ("weather in [city] on [date]"), and for example how long it will take for the Voyager 1 probe to reach our closest star next to the Sun.

I've been playing around with it for a while today, and so far, having been loving it. Got lots of respect for the devs, this platform is doing a hell of a lot behind the scenes!

Yes, I also like it for what it is. So many seem to expect it to answer "unanswerable" questions for a scientific knowledge base though.

As I said below, it can't tell how to make a hamburger or pizza, but it can tell the total nutrition value for a large glass of Coke + a McDonald's hamburger:

If one understands why that is, then one understand the goal with WA. :-p

Having said that, sure, WA is far from perfect, and is missing out on being able to do things one would expect it to.