Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Wolfram Alpha" may become the ultimate instant knowledge tool!

There’s a new “knowledge tool” coming soon (and I don’t mean to the neighborhood theaters!), called “Wolfram Alpha”. The website is here and it invites you to leave your email and name and a message. I simply said something like “interested knowledge tools and knowledge management.” It does not respond automatically immediately, and suggests that not all of the site will be public to everyone.

I certainly recommend watching the “Screencasthere. I suspect that, with websites, the facility will act as a sophisticated “WHOIS”.

The most interesting demonstrations are probably mathematics (integration of various functions), engineering and particularly medicine (pieces of the human genome). There will be some probability facilities that certainly will interest insurance companies.

The underlying technique seems to be searching from a huge relational database with very sophisticated SQL queries (hopefully, no correlated subqueries – they’re slow!), familiar to database programmers.

The company is located in Massachusetts. The founder is Stephen Wolfram (no relation to the name of the heavy metal on the Periodic Table). It says that it will accumulate all the knowledge of our civilization and make it instantly computable. The tone of the presentation suggests he thinks we will make an impression in alien visitors.

It’s natural to wonder how this would mesh with Wikipedia, and whether the companies or foundations will join forces, and obviously, how they would work with Google, MSN, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Apple and other major Internet players.

The service reminds me of the earlier search tool "Ask Jeeves" (site), which was much earlier in generation of this technology.

I also wonder how it would play out in academia. Teachers will insist that students be able to solve problems themselves. (What comes to my mind immediately is integration by partial fractions!) The availability of the tool raises questions on how to manage academic integrity issues. Sometimes you have to prove you can do it yourself. (Especially when you’re “on call” at work.)

The Wired Epicenter story by Steven Levy is here and it links to earlier stories about the new company.

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