Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha, does it ring a bell? Well maybe not but according to an article it has been making a buzz in the tech community. The said web site/service is said to launch on May 18 in the U.S.

Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine: it has a box where you type in a question or query terms. That’s about where the similarities end, though, because, unlike Google or Ask, Wolfram|Alpha is kind of like an enormous calculator. It takes your question and crunches out an entirely new answer, even if the answer isn’t something that’s been posted on the Web before.
Wolfram Alpha and Google are very different animals. Google is designed to help people find Web pages. It's a big lookup system basically, a librarian for the Web. Wolfram Alpha on the other hand is not at all oriented towards finding Web pages, it's for computing factual answers. It's much more like a giant calculator for computing all sorts of answers to questions that involve or require numbers. Alpha is for calculating, not for finding. So it doesn't compete with Google's core business at all. In fact, it is much more comptetive with the Wikipedia than with Google.On the other hand, while Alpha doesn't compete with Google, Google may compete with Alpha. Google is increasingly trying to answer factual questions directly -- for example unit conversions, questions about the time, the weather, the stock market, geography, etc. But in this area, Alpha has a powerful advantage: it's built on top of Wolfram's Mathematica engine, which represents decades of work and is perhaps the most powerful calculation engine ever built.

Wolfram Alpha also solves equations and shows the steps it took to do so, which will be of interest to high school students and math majors. Not into number crunching? If you live near the coast, you could type in “tides in ____” and find charts of tidal and lunar information. You could also graph that against other cities, which would be cool if you’re a surfer.

Wolfram Alpha is also interesting for academic queries. Type in “Internet users in Africa” and you’ll get the total number of Web users there — 51 million — as well as lists of the number of users by country plus graphs of this information. If you’re in the fisheries business, or if you’re an environmentalist, you could type in “fish produced in Italy versus France” to get an idea of how that sector is faring. The answer includes specifics, like how much of the fish crop was farmed versus what was captured. Such data could be used to argue policy points or to debate whether or not certain industries are sustainable.

Of course, questions abound. It remains to be seen just how smart Wolfram Alpha really is, or can be. How easily extensible is it? Will it get increasingly hard to add and maintain knowledge as more is added to it? Will it ever make mistakes? What forms of knowledge will it be able to handle in the future?

I think Wolfram would agree that it is probably never going to be able to give relationship or career advice, for example, because that is "fuzzy" -- there is often no single right answer to such questions. And I don't know how comprehensive it is, or how it will be able to keep up with all the new knowledge in the world (the knowledge in the system is exclusively added by Wolfram's team right now, which is a labor intensive process). But Wolfram is an ambitious guy. He seems confident that he has figured out how to add new knowledge to the system at a fairly rapid pace, and he seems to be planning to make the system extremely broad.

And there is the question of bias, which we addressed as well. Is there any risk of bias in the answers the system gives because all the knowledge is entered by Wolfram's team? Those who enter the knowledge and design the formal models in the system are in a position to both define the way the system thinks -- both the questions and the answers it can handle. Wolfram believes that by focusing on factual knowledge -- things like you might find in the Wikipedia or textbooks or reports -- the bias problem can be avoided. At least he is focusing the system on questions that do have only one answer -- not questions for which there might be many different opinions. Everyone generally agrees for example that the closing price of GOOG on a certain data is a particular dollar amount. It is not debatable. These are the kinds of questions the system addresses.

But even for some supposedly factual questions, there are potential biases in the answers one might come up with, depending on the data sources and paradigms used to compute them. Thus the choice of data sources has to be made carefully to try to reflect as non-biased a view as possible. Wolfram's strategy is to rely on widely accepted data sources like well-known scientific models, public data about factual things like the weather, geography and the stock market published by reputable organizatoins and government agencies, etc. But of course even this is a particular worldview and reflects certain implicit or explicit assumptions about what data sources are authoritative.

This is a system that reflects one perspective -- that of Wolfram and his team -- which probably is a close approximation of the mainstream consensus scientific worldview of our modern civilization. It is a tool -- a tool for answering questions about the world today, based on what we generally agree that we know about it. Still, this is potentially murky philosophical territory, at least for some kinds of questions. Consider global warming -- not all scientists even agree it is taking place, let alone what it signifies or where the trends are headed. Similarly in economics, based on certain assumptions and measurements we are either experiencing only mild inflation right now, or significant inflation. There is not necessarily one right answer -- there are valid alternative perspectives.

I agree with Wolfram, that bias in the data choices will not be a problem, at least for a while. But even scientists don't always agree on the answers to factual questions, or what models to use to describe the world -- and this disagreement is essential to progress in science in fact. If there is only one "right" answer to any question there could never be progress, or even different points of view. Fortunately, Wolfram is desigining his system to link to alternative questions and answers at least, and even to sources for more information about the answers (such as the Wikipeda for example). In this way he can provide unambiguous factual answers, yet also connect to more information and points of view about them at the same time. This is important.

It is ironic that a system like Wolfram Alpha, which is designed to answer questions factually, will probably bring up a broad range of questions that don't themselves have unambiguous factual answers -- questions about philosophy, perspective, and even public policy in the future (if it becomes very widely used). It is a system that has the potential to touch our lives as deeply as Google. Yet how widely it will be used is an open question too.

The system is beautiful, and the user interface is already quite simple and clean. In addition, answers include computationally generated diagrams and graphs -- not just text. It looks really cool. But it is also designed by and for people with IQ's somewhere in the altitude of Wolfram's -- some work will need to be done dumbing it down a few hundred IQ points so as to not overwhelm the average consumer with answers that are so comprehensive that they require a graduate degree to fully understand.

It also remains to be seen how much the average consumer thirsts for answers to factual questions. I do think all consumers at times have a need for this kind of intelligence once in a while, but perhaps not as often as they need something like Google. But I am sure that academics, researchers, students, government employees, journalists and a broad range of professionals in all fields definitely need a tool like this and will use it every day.

For now if you want to try using Wolfram Alpha you just have to wait until it's been launch since it's only available now for a "few individuals".

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