Saturday, May 16, 2009

A New Kind of Search

I was always curious about A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram, but never curious enough to spend my own money or time on the book. In a previous era, I was a very nerdy college student with a PC and a 2400 baud modem. I had early access to the underworld of fringe science and free text files. So the idea of reading over 1100 pages from Wolfram, an author who is overly impressed that a simple computer program can produce output that seems irregular and complex, seemed kind of anticlimactic.

But since Wolfram is obviously into rehashing old ideas, he built a search engine, WolframAlpha, which launched yesterday. It's certainly different. Remember that Cute Cat Theory I discussed a few days ago? Well, try searching for "cute cats" and all you'll find is that "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." I doubt this thing can survive!

But to be fair, it's not trying to replace the old search engines. This engine is all about computing answers. I'm not really sure how I can put it to use yet, but here's a handy table comparing the popularity of the names Michael and Elvis:

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And here's one chart I get when I enter "greenhouse gas emissions":

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And here are the demographics of Zimbabwe:

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That's all cool, but it took quite a bit of poking around to get results. WolframAlpha doesn't understand the simple human queries that I thought it would handle. If it can't be HAL, I might as well stick with Google and WikiPedia... Sadly, the only time it does act like HAL is when it can't complete a computation. At least it's not killing anybody yet.

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