What happens if you ask Google to compare the GDP of France and Germany, or ask it how many cows were in Vermont each of the last ten years? You may find a web page where someone has posted that information, or you may have to search for several sites and gather the information for yourself, or you may find some references to follow to do some research. Google is fantastic, wonderful, certainly but is not designed for those kinds of questions.
Enter Wolfram Alpha.
Dr. Wolfram, of Mathematica and New Kind of Science fame, is launching a new type of web search engine that combines the symbolic representation and calculating capabilities of Mathematica with natural language processing. Or, to quote: “Fifty years ago, when computers were young, people assumed that they’d quickly be able to handle all these kinds of things. And that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer. But it didn’t work out that way. Computers have been able to do many remarkable and unexpected things. But not that. I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realized that I was finally in a position to try to do it.”
Natural language processing is still in its infant stage and “for example we’re still very far away from having computers systematically understand large volumes of natural language text on the web.” So, Alpha begins small with “trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms.”