Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Barker's Dozen: Wolfram Alpha

Now this was interesting.

With one exception, Alpha's responses fell into two categories:
  • It said it didn't know what to do with the input and possibly gave links to not-particularly-related stuff. Curiously, this included "How much energy does the US consume?"
  • It just totally blew away everything else I've seen (that'll make a nice pull quote), giving a nicely formatted and complete response, stating its assumptions and citing its sources.
The successes:
  • How many cell phones are there in Africa? Surprising, after it whiffed on the energy question, but I strongly suggest you try this one yourself. I literally found myself thinking "Now that's what I'm talking about!"
  • Who starred in 2001: a Space Odyssey? It couldn't grok 2001 by itself, but with the full title it gave a nicely formatted table of actors and roles. Much better than Google/Ask's/Powerset's second place.
  • How far is it from Bangor to Leeds? It started off by assuming I meant Bangor, Maine to Leeds, UK, but offered a drop down with which to change that. One click later and I had an answer, with both cities shown on a map, and their current local times, populations and elevations thrown in (further down the page) for good measure.
  • How far is it from Bangor to New York? Likewise, but this time the default of Maine works off the bat.
  • How far is it from Paris to Dallas? Same great display, but no option to switch cities from Paris, France and Dallas, TX. This is the "one exception".
Clearly Alpha is doing reasonably sophisticated analysis of the questions and delivering well-customized responses. To do this, they are most likely employing a variety of specialized techniques and databases. When the question falls outside the reach of those, you get nothing. But if it falls inside, the results are dramatic.

Even more encouraging, from my point of view, is that Alpha demonstrates a clearly different approach from the usual search, unlike Powerset/Bing. I can easily imagine Alpha incorporating more specialized knowledge over time and being able to answer a wider variety of questions with equally impressive results. For example, "When is the next ..." might well be amenable.

As I've said before, I don't see Alpha replacing Google, but I could definitely see it complementing a pure text-based approach, and becoming the tool of choice for a reasonably wide variety of questions with numeric or otherwise discrete answers. Which, as I understand it, is precisely what Wolfram is after here.

Unlike what I said before, I'm no longer skeptical that Wolfram is pursuing a useful approach.

[I still use Alpha routinely for a certain class of questions, but they tend to be more calculation based than search-based.  E.g., How many firkins in a cubic mile? (1.398 x 1011), but I don't tend to think of it for something like How many cell phones are there in Africa?.  Perhaps I should, though.  The answer Alpha gives for that one is still outstanding. --D.H. May 2015]

No comments: