Here is an impressive video (actually part 1 of 2) introduction to Wolfram | Alpha by Stephen Wolfram.
It is an “computational knowledge engine” ( or answers engine) that was released 2 years ago on May 15, 2009 and was named the greatest innovation of 2009 by Popular Science.
It differs from Google or a traditional search engine in that it does not deliver a list of links to documents or web pages, but rather it delivers computed answers from structured data.
As there are so many web sites that profess to answer our questions–whether Q&A sites like Answers.com and Quora or online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, I am intrigued by Wolfram Alpha’s computational knowledge niche.
While the site is useful for getting everything from the GDP of France to the height of Mt. Hermont, I found the Wolfram Alpha site struggling to answer a set of basic test questions:
1) Total amount (also tried “size”) of federal deficit — No, don’t want a definition of a deficit.
2) Number of U.S. embassies around the world — No, don’t want the U.S. population, density, language, etc.
3) How many employees at the Department of State — No, don’t want a list of U.S. states.
4) Air craft carriers in U.S. Navy – 11 (okay, yay!, but no list of what these are and no hyperlink, boo!)
5) (let’s try this) What are the names of U.S. aircraft carriers – No, don’t want the number of passengers and goods transported in 2009.
6) Planned number of F-35 to be produced — No, don’t want the function line F-35.
7) Members of House of Representatives – Yes, 435.
8) Time in Alaska – 3:46 am, thanks.
9) Age of International Space Station – launch November 20, 1998 (12.7 years ago) – informative.
10) Depth of Earth’s crust – 0-22 miles – not bad.
11) Volume of Pacific Ocean – big number provided – good enough for me.
12) Largest lottery winnings – No, not the movie, “The Lottery.”
While Wolfram Alpha is impressive in mathematical and scientific prowess, too often, the answers just did not compute for the everyday questions posed.
As busy people juggling many different roles in life, it’s nice to actually get an answer back when you have a question, rather than have to start searching through thousands or links from the traditional search engine page.
But when instead of getting answers, you see messages that the search engine is “computing” and then coming back with null or void responses, we are left worse off then when we started.
We shouldn’t have to think long and hard about what we can ask or how we to ask it; the search engine should be user-centric and we should be able to be ourselves.
As search engine users, I think we have the right to expect that our focus should be on how to apply the answers rather than on the engine itself or else something is wrong.