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Wolfram’s new Search Engine May 16, 2009

Posted by Andre Vellino in CISTI, Search, Semantics.


The new “search engine” Wolfram Alpha by Stephen Wolfram is interesting.  It’s neither a typical query-based search engine nor a question answering system.  But it also isn’t (yet) a “computational knowledge engine” as the web site would have us believe. It’s something in between perhaps.

There’s no question that Wolfram Alpha’s goals for the future are lofty:

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.

But we’re not quite there yet – not in May 2009 anyway.

I was interested by the results for “Multiple Sclerosis”, even though what I wanted to know were it’s known causes:


But if you try ” collaborative filtering” or “statistical semantics” or “demdemyelinating disease”, Wolfram Alpha is stumped and you are given subject areas (that it knows about) to browse.

Within a subject area that it does know something about (e.g “Quantum Physics”) you are presented with template question-types for whichl Wolfram Alpha will produce answers:


Which is quite educational, as far as it goes.

All of this uses what they call “curated data” – which presumably means that lots of formulas and equations have been entered into a web-based version of Mathematica and annotated with subject-area metadata.  Is this enough, though?  And can we trust the “objectivity” of the knowledge (e.g what Wolfram Alpha knows about cellular automata)?

To be a really useful tool, it sounds like a lot of people are going to have to contribute a lot of information. And even then that information will only be retrievable in a very particular way.

This effort seems more likely to succeed at codifying all human knowledge than Cyc, but it still seems like an impossible task.


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