Wolfram Alpha is not a threat to Google, yet, but it certainly is an alternative way of accessing data on the Internet. It is described as an ‘answer engine’. It does not return a list of web pages, when it is queried with some keywords. The days of using this technique are, in any case, numbered as the Semantic Web becomes a reality.
Wolfram Alpha responds to factual queries. It uses as its source a range of structured data, from which the answer is computed. Access to the system was granted to the public in May 2009, and in the same year Popular Science voted it as the greatest computer innovation of the year. The key difference between it and Google, is that to a query Wolfram Alpha returns a single definitive answer (if it can), rather than references to hundreds of thousands of web pages which may contain what you are looking for.
The system has been written in five million lines of Mathematica code, and is run across ten thousand CPUs. It runs using the more recent versions of internet browsers (older versions have some difficulty in displaying the text, especially symbols), and an iPhone app gives some of the mobile community access.
So what does it do? After a few minutes of exploration it is surprising what it can do, even including elements in the response which may be relevant to your query. For example, if you ask “What is the GDP of Sri Lanka?” it will provide the answer together with other data which is deemed as appropriate, such as the unemployment rate, the current exchange rates with other currencies and a graph showing the GDP over the last thirty years.
It will respond to queries on a number of topics, click on the ‘Examples’ link on the home page, but to give you a flavour here is a small sample:
- How old was Winston Churchill in 1955?
- Try typing your first name, or the town where you were born
- Enter any year
- How far is Cape Town from Rome?
- integrate sin x dx from x=0 to pi
- time to fall 1000ft
- house prices New York, Boston, San Francisco
- weather London July 24, 1982
- true airspeed p0=22inHg, 20000ft
- life expectancy UK female age 21
- skychart cambridge,uk
- Ain’t No Sunshine
- mortgage £150,000, 6.5%, 25 years
- what is the meaning of everything?