New search engine breaks convention

New search engine breaks convention
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First Published: Mon, May 11 2009. 09 11 PM IST
Updated: Mon, May 11 2009. 09 11 PM IST
Every new online search service must face the inevitable question: “Is it better than Google?”
WolframAlpha, a powerful new service that can answer a broad range of queries, has become one of the most anticipated Web products of the year. But its creator, Stephen Wolfram, wants to make something clear: Despite the online chatter comparing it with Google, his service is not intended to dethrone the king of search engines.
“I am not keen on the hype,” said Wolfram, a well-known scientist and entrepreneur and the founder of Wolfram Research, a firm in Champaign, Illinois, that has been quietly developing WolframAlpha.
Wolfram’s service does not search through Web pages, and it will not help with movie times or camera shopping. Instead it computes the answers to queries using enormous collections of data it has amassed. It can quickly spit out facts such as the average body mass index of a 40-year-old male and whether the Eiffel Tower is taller than Seattle’s Space Needle.
WolframAlpha, which is expected to be available to the public at Wolframalpha.com in the next week, is not a finished product. It is an early working version of a project that has been years in the making and will continue to evolve over years.
As such, there is much it cannot answer now. But even as he dismisses the Google comparisons, Wolfram, a former child prodigy who published his first research paper on particle physics at age 15 and is best known for creating the math-formula software Mathematica, is happy to add fuel to the simmering expectations surrounding his service. “I think WolframAlpha has the potential to be quite important.”
The goal of creating a computer system that can answer questions has been a tantalizing but elusive pursuit for many computer scientists for more than four decades. Some veterans say Wolfram may have come as close as anyone yet.
“In many ways, creating a system like this has been a holy grail of lots of folks for some time,” said Nathan Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer of Microsoft Corp. and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, an investment firm that owns a portfolio of patents.
“It has wound up being considered something that is virtually impossible,” Myhrvold said. WolframAlpha has shown “that it wasn’t impossible but really difficult... It involved applying lots of different tricks.”
Doug Lenat, an artificial intelligence expert whose company Cycorp has spent the last 15 years developing a system that brings human-like reasoning to some computer systems, said WolframAlpha can handle “an astronomical number of questions,” and could eventually turn into a favourite destination on the Web. “It may become a massive player alongside Google.”
Traditional search engines such as Google and Yahoo excel at finding information that already exists online. WolframAlpha is different. For starters, it does not gather data from the Web. Instead, its “knowledge base” is made up of reams and reams of data— ranging from facts you would find in a World Almanac, to scientific data—that some 100 employees at Wolfram Research have gathered over several years.
When a user types in a query, WolframAlpha tries to determine the relevant area of knowledge and find the answers, often by performing calculations on its data. If you type “LDL 120”, it will return a graph showing the distribution of cholesterol levels among the US population, and display the percentage of people above and below that figure.
In response to “how far is the moon from earth”, it will calculate the exact distance based on an algorithm that computes the ever-changing distance between the two. The engine that computes answers is largely built on Mathematica.
In its current state, there are many queries that WolframAlpha cannot answer, either because it does not understand the question or because it does not have the requisite data.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Mon, May 11 2009. 09 11 PM IST