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The "End" Is Here....

To some, the "end" has arrived. That is the end to end all...at least in the finding of answers to questions. The special day to mark is May 15, 2009, as that was the release day for Wolfram Alpha, a "computational knowledge engine."

According to its own website, Wolfram Alpha is "the first step in an ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone." Unfortunately, some equate "first step" and "the end."

A version of Wolfram Alpha is available free online, ready to answer your "factual queries." Its process differs from other resources in that it uses structured data to directly "compute" the answer to a query. At best, other search-engine types, given the same query, are able to only suggest long lists of web pages links, that you the user must then search through for a possible answer to the query.

Is the hype being overdone? Consider one reviewer who asked the question "How Smart is it and Will it Take Over the World?" That same reviewer later concluded: "But as intelligent as it seems, Wolfram Alpha is not HAL 9000, and it wasn't intended to be. It doesn't have a sense of self or opinions or feelings."

Another reviewer claimed Wolfram Alpha was the "biggest internet revolution for a generation," plus that it could "understand questions" and was the "first step towards what many consider to be the internet's Holy Grail."

Wolfram Alpha involves a base of 5 million lines of Mathematica code located on 10,000 CPUs. Throughout the query process, Mathematica runs in the background to answer mathematical questions.

As some first steps on your own, check out Wolfram's introductory video. And, explore the visual and computational examples provided on the website. Remember, the current version is free, but will be followed by a "paid" version that allows users even more power (i.e. one more step to the Holy Grail!).

My advice...Make up your own mind. Take some time to play with Wolfram Alpha. Test it out. Pretend you are a middle schooler and try to push its limits by asking a variety of questions, including the inane. Anyway, that's what I did....

For example, my query "6 divided by 0" resulted in the answer "complex infinity." Not sure what that meant, so I asked "what is complex infinity?" No answer, as it asked if I meant "rank infinity." Instead I entered "infinity?" and the response was "Assuming infinity is a mathematical constant" and then printed only the symbol "∞".

The response to my query "Euler's birthdate?" provided more information than I ever wanted to know:

  • After giving the date of April 15, 1707, it repeated this result in terms of the Jewish calendar (24 Nissan, 5467) and the Islamic calendar (23 Muharram, 1119)
  • Also, his birth was 302 years, 4 months, and 5 days ago (i.e. I asked the question on 8/20/2009) or 110,431 days ago
  • No U.S. holidays occur on that date, but it coincides with the birthday of Leonardo da Vinci (1452), Catherine I (1684), and Suleiman II (1642) Note: Oddly when I entered "Suleiman II birthday" it did not list Euler's birthday, but did list the mathematician Pietro Antonio Cataldi (1548).
  • This is just a sample of my play. My conclusion is that Wolfram Alpha is impressive, can be fun, but it is not the "internet Holy Grail."