Everybody's googley-eyed about the long-anticipated first-coming of Wolfram|Alpha, launched yesterday. Already, the system claims 10+ trillion of pieces of data, 50,000+ types of algorithms and models, and linguistic capabilities for 1000+ domains. But can it cook?
Stephen Wolfram gives a very impressive demo. He should: he's both an acknowledged genius and simultaneously a guy who acts like he's pretending to be a genius. W|A stands as a milestone in The Quest for Computable Knowledge and is based on Wolfram's single-handed invention of A New Kind of Science (irrespective of previous work in chaos and complexity research).
A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over …. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic…
"Wolfram|Alpha steadily building up pretty detailed knowledge on a lot of kinds of topics," he claims. "We're trying to take as much of the world's knowledge as possible and make it computable, taking all the data and methods, models and algorithms that have been accumulated in our civilization and make them immediately computable. So that anyone anywhere can go just to the web and use that knowledge to compute answers to their specific questions."
…he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away. 'Girl number twenty,' said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger…
But for every question I type in that I'm really curious about, the response is "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." Or W|A has "temporarily exceeded its current maximum test load" with a video link to a bunch of guys scratching their heads in the control center.
…'Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!' said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. 'Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.' …'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.'…'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'
After a while, I gave up and clicked on one of the most intriguing of the sample queries: comparing On the Road to Naked Lunch. But is original language what I really want to know about two of the most interesting works of a literary generation? And it isn't even giving me the most useful facts, such as copies sold or prizes awarded.
'Why, then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don't see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don't have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.' ...'This is a new principle, a discovery, a great discovery'...
W|A tells me that "Obama" is either a city or a head of state. But how useful is a head of state's full name, date and place of birth? That's all you get. If I Google Obama, I get links to all kinds of subjective resources on the man and his policies, which is more likely to be useful for any reason I might be looking other than sending birthday presents.
Wolfram|Alpha does seem to offer a revolution in how we can query for factual and quantitative information. It's stunning in terms of simple presentation and user-interface. But does it make us smarter? Internet searching has already conditioned too many of us to believe that if you can't search for it, it must not matter. Will Alpha take us farther down a path that assumes that facts are the answer?
'Fact, fact, fact!'... 'You are to be in all things regulated and governed,' said the gentleman, 'by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don't walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don't find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,' said the gentleman, 'for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.'
None of this isn't to say that W|A isn't pretty cool. For a guy like myself, who starts with unanswerable questions and works backwards, having a better source of facts is handy. (Not to mention somebody else doing the math.) And as Wolfram's "knowledge base" grows, it would be an ideal engine behind the kinds of "associative linking" widgets that have been tried—that quietly observe what you are working on and suggest things that you might like to "know."