By now you have probably heard the buzz as the new search engine Wolfram|Alpha aims to make "all systematic knowledge immediately accessible to everyone." But can Wolfram|Alpha, a sort of Google meets the Wikipedia of Data, change the way the world searches for (and views) information?
Wolfram|Alpha is Still Beta
Although Stephen Wolfram has decided the time is ripe to let Wolfram|Alpha "loose in the world," the system clearly fails to fulfill Wolfram's vision. It can be said, at best, that Wolfram|Alpha is a sort of Beta version, showing the type of functionality available over a limited set of data. Our searches for simple topics of environmental interest such as "greenhouse gas per capita" or "global warming" are met with the somewhat disappointing replies like "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input," or "Functionality for this topic is under development...".
But in spite of dubious initial reviews, here are the reasons why we think Wolfram|Alpha raises hope, and the reasons to fear it might be hype.+1. Wolfram Research Credentials
Founder Stephen Wolfram -- author of A New Kind of Science and creator of the program Mathematica -- is well-known in academic communities. His name alone generates interest independent of the ambitious promises of his newest project. Wolfram's credentials suggest the project should be taken seriously. And Wolfram's commitment to stick with the project for the long term suggests that the long and painful process for creating a whole new way to look at knowledge might be brought to a successful end.
+2. A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Ways
Today, you can only guess at whether the chips in compostable packaging from a local factory are more environmentally friendly than the food miles of your Fair Trade Ethiopian coffee. Just imagine a search engine that can access the raw data, provided under Right-to-Know laws perhaps, and crunch the numbers for you. You may still choose to enjoy the chips and/or the coffee, but you balance your life choices overall for a sustainable lifestyle.
+3. Fewer Clicks are More Efficient
A lot has been made of the environmental impact of Google searching as compared to a glass of orange juice or a cup of tea. But the fact remains that even low-emission activities conducted by billions of people, hundreds of times per day, have a real impact. For scientists seeking for an understandable presentation of data, Wolfram|Alpha will save clicks. For real humans (OK, scientists included), Wolfram|Alpha offers a new algorithm for considering search inputs. Both offer exciting prospects for the future of information management.
+4. Models are the Future of Knowledge
Mathematical models are used to predict everything from how the stock market behaves to how to prevent malaria with landscape architecture. Wolfram|Alpha will have to address the issue that model output is only as good as the model assumptions. But the hard choices that will face humandkind's transition to sustainable living will require a strong underpinning of data and accessible facts.
+5. Wolfram|Alpha is Ready to Answer Your Questions
Stephan Wolfram will personally answer questions submitted or asked in the Wolfram Alpha Live Webcast planned for tomorrow, 4 June at 4pm US Central Daylight Savings Time. A search on Wolfram|Alpha conveniently shows that is CEST -7 (Central European Summer Time), with an analog-clock view of my local time and the search time.
- 1. Wolfram|Alpha will Never be a Verb
Just a sec, let me Wolf that. Nope. Wait a minute, I will Alpha that. Not much better. Well, I am just gonna google that on Wolfram|Alpha. Could stick. And what is with the pipe (|)? Show of hands: how many of you know where the pipe character is on your keyboard?
-2. The World is not that Simple
Stephen Wolfram says in the video below (warning: long video):
All that knowledge out there might somehow be representable, might be handlable, by rules that are simple enough that one could actually build them.Wolfram has set up a system to engage the imagination of the experts that might help make Wolfram's incredible vision reality. Or it might be another Don Quixote or quest for the fountain of youth. Is the world really as simple as Stephan Wolfram believes? Try Wolfing "simple beauty" and "representable knowledge". "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." But cancel negative number one.
Video: YouTube (warning: long video)
Stephen Wolfram Gives Sneak Preview of Wolfram|Alpha at Harvard
More on Search Engines and Models
The Best Green Search Engines
Climate Versus Economy: Yale Model Allows You to Decide.
More Accurate Air Pollution Computer Model by the Argonne National Laboratory