A new Google on the horizon?

Friday, May 8th, 2009 by Roberto Saracco

Wolfram, the company that is selling Mathematica, a milestone in the area of turning a computer into a mathematician, has announced a “computational knowledge engine”, a search engine, that can best Google in answering your queries on information on the web: Wolfram Alpha.

A first beta version is available to some researchers and it was presented few days ago to the public.

Indeed, the first responses from users are showing that in certain areas, where math can help in making sense out of information, Alpha is faring much better than Google.

This is one of the feedback available on the web:

“SEARCH TERM: Sydney New York

WOLFRAM ALPHA: I got tables showing the distance between the two cities in miles, kilometres, meters, even nautical miles; a map of the world with the optimal flight path; and the fact that the trip spans 0.4 of the earth’s circumference. I learned how long it would take to make the trip: 18.1 hours flying; 13 hours for a sound wave, 74 milliseconds for a light beam in fiber, and 53 milliseconds for a light beam traveling in a vacuum. I also got comparative populations, elevation in meters, and current local times.

GOOGLE: I got a mix of things: a form for finding flights between Sydney and New York; a Google Maps-plotted list of businesses in New York City that contain the word “Sydney”; and links to the municipal government of Sidney, a small town in upstate New York.”

Clearly from this example Alpha turned out a much better answer. It did not find the answer as such anywhere on the web but shaped the answer based on information it found on the web. One has to recognize some sort of intelligence in this process.

Take a look at the video showing a demonstration of Alpha:

Wolfram Alpha demo

I really do hope that you watch the video. The kind of answers that Alpha is able to provide are just astounding, it really places it in a class of its own.

But is “better” sufficient to win the game? Actually no. Google has positioned itself as the king of on-line publicity and that is because of sheer volume. That volume cannot be achieved by Alpha since it can better Google only in a relatively few cases. Hence it will not be able to attract as much publicity as Google.

On the other hand, if Alpha lives up to its promises, it can carve a good niche in the search market. Too small, probably, to survive on ads revenues alone. May be some different biz models may be needed.

The future will tell. However, it is interesting to note that innovation can still happen in the search engine area!

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