wolframalpha

A few years ago, a good friend gave me a nice little present: 5 kilos of dead tree in the form of Stephen Wolfram’s “A new kind of science”. I never read it cover to cover and merely scanned a few pages with lots of pretty pictures before deciding that this wasn’t really my cup of tea. I also read a bit some of the criticism on this book from the scientific community. I’m way out of my league there so, no comments from be except a few observations:

  • Presentation of the book is rather pompous and arrogant. The author tries to convince the readers that they the most important piece of science ever produced in their hands.
  • This is what set of most of the criticism. Apparently, the author fails to both credit related work as well as properly back up some of his crucial claims with proper evidence.
  • Apparently there are quite a few insufficiently substantiated claims which affects credibility of the overall book and claims of the author
  • The approach of the author to write the book has been the ivory tower approach where he quite literally dedicated a decade+ of his life to writing it during which he did not seek out much criticism from his peers.
  • So, the book is controversial and may either turn out to be the new relativity theory (relatively speaking) or a genuine dud. I’m out of my league deciding either way

Anyway, the same Stephen Wolfram has for years been providing the #1 mathematical software IDE: Mathematica, which is one of the most popular software tools for anyone involved with mathematics. I’m not a mathematician and haven’t touched such tools in over 10 years now (dabbled a bit with linear algebra in college) but as far as I know, his company and product have a pretty solid reputation.

Now the same person has brought the approach he applied to his book and his solid reputation as a owner of Mathematica to the wonderful world of Web 2.0. Now that is something I know a thing or two about. Given the above I was initially quite sceptic when the first, pretty wild, rumors around wolframalpha started circulating. However, some hands on experience has just changed my mind. So here’s my verdict:

This stuff is great & revolutionary!

No it’s not Google. It’s not Wikipedia either. It’s not Semantic web either. Instead it’s a knowledge reasoning engine hooked up to some authoritative data sets. So, it’s not crawling the web. It’s not user editable and it is not relying on traditional Semantic web standards from e.g. W3C (though very likely it must be using similar technology).

This is the breakthrough that was needed. The semantic web community seems to be stuck in an endless loop pondering pointless standards, query formats, graph representations and generally rehashing computer science topics that have been studied for 40 years now without producing much viable business models or products. Wikipedia is nice but very chaotic and unstructured as well. The marriage of semantic web and wikipedia is obvious has been tried countless times and has so far not produced interesting results. Google is very good at searching through the chaos that is the current web but can be absolutely unhelpful with simple, fact based questions. Most fact based questions in Google return a wikipedia article as one of the links. Useful, but it doesn’t directly answer the question.

This is exactly the gap that wolframalpha fills. There’s many scientists and startups with the same ambition but Wolframalpha.com got to market first with a usable product that can answer a broad range of factual questions with knowledge imported into its system from trustworthy sources. It works beautifully for facts and knowledge it has and allows users to do two things:

  • Find answers to pretty detailed queries from trustworthy sources. Neither Wikipedia nor Google can do this, at best they can point you at a source that has the answer and leave it up to you to judge the trustworthyness of the source.
  • Fact surfing! Just like surfing from one topic to the next on Wikipedia is a fun activity, I predict that drilling down facts on wolframalpha is a equally fun and useful.

So what’s next? Obviously, wolframalpha.com will have competition. However, their core asset seems to be their reasoning engine combined with the quite huge fact database which is to date unrivaled. Improvements in both areas will solidify their position as market leader. I predict that several owners of large bodies of authoritative information will be itching to be a part of this and partnership deals will be announced. Wolframalpha could easily evolve into a crucial tool for knowledge workers. So crucial even that they might want to pay for access to certain information.

Some more predictions:

  • Several other startups will start competing soon with competing products. There should be dozens of companies working on similar or related products. Maybe all they needed was a somebody taking a first step.
  • Google likely has people working on such technologies they will either launch or buy products in this space in the next two years
  • Main competitors of Google are Yahoo and MS who have both been investing heavily in search technology and experience. They too will want a piece of this market
  • With so much money floating around in this market, wolframalpha and similar companies should have no shortage of venture capital, despite the current crisis. Also, wolframalpha might end up being bought up by Google or MS.
  • If not bought up or outcompeted (both of which I consider to be likely), wolframalpha will be the next Google

4 Replies to “wolframalpha”

  1. Ok, de reactie is een paar maanden na de post, maar misschien wel handig in dit geval.

    Ik ben er namelijk nog steeds niet over uit of ik wat met wolframalpha aan moet. Het fact-finding principe vind ik geniaal, maar ik heb het de afgelopen maanden alleen af en toe gebruikt als een gratis light versie van mathematica. Dat is toch niet echt de bedoeling…

    Jij al meer mening gevormd?

    1. Het idee is nog steeds aardig maar staat of valt natuurlijk met de uitvoering. Mijn indruk is dat er na de initiele hype niet veel gebeurd is. Duidelijk is inmiddels dat wolfram alpha vrij beperkt is in scope. Het is mij niet duidelijk of dat een beperking is in de manier waarop het werkt of slechts een gebrek aan content partners.

  2. Dat laatste is zeker het geval, volgens mij. Ik liet de site laatst even aan een collega zien, en het duurde even voor ik een zoekopdracht gaf waar wat zinnigs uitkwam…

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