The Wolfram Alpha search engine, which lets users access and process web data using natural language search, graphs and statistics, was previewed yesterday.
Stephen Wolfram, its creator, demonstrated the system at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, describing the project as " tremendously ambitious".
He explained that he was "looking for a way to make systematic knowledge computable" and to "compute whatever can be computed about the world". Wolfram also admitted that it had been a big project and would be a long-term one.
In his demonstration, Wolfram typed in a mathematical question "in a cruddy syntax" and the engine replied with the correct answer. Other questions such as 'What is the GPD of France?' and 'How many internet users are there in Europe?' were correctly answered and supported with graphs and other statistics. As an analytics tool it looks impressive.
Wolfram explained in an earlier blog post that the system would apply "a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation" to search results, in order to provide the best possible returns using natural language search questions. The system is set for a May launch.
Perhaps unfortunately, Google chose the same day to launch its own similar product, an analytics tool that lets users crunch a number of data fields against each other to provide accurate and up-to-the-minute statistical information.
"Since Google's acquisition of Trendalyzer two years ago, we have been working on creating a new service that makes lots of data instantly available for intuitive, visual exploration. Today's launch is a first step in that direction," said Google product manager Ola Rosling in a blog post.
The feature is invoked when the user visits Google.com and types in a statistic query such as 'population' followed by the name of a US state.
"The data we're including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web," said Rosling. "There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers' salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on."