Wolfram Alpha takes on Google

A British physicist is to launch a new internet search engine, dubbed Wolfram Alpha, which will let users ask a fact-based question and have it compute an answer.

London-born scientist Stephen Wolfram has built a search engine that apparently can compute answers to factual questions more powerfully than Google.

In a blog post about the project, Wolfram said he believes that computation, rather than semantic understanding, may be the key to better search.

"A lot of [information] is now on the web — in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text," he wrote on his website.

"But we can't compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can't figure anything new out."

Wolfram is well-known as the inventor of Mathematica, the multi-faceted program that made the computer a useful tool for serious mathematics. He also authored A New Kind of Science (NKS), a 1,200-page report that attempts to explain a vast array of natural phenomena in terms of cellular automata, simple mathematical rules that can lead to complex behaviour.

Using these two tools that he's already built, Wolfram realised he could build a new model for search engines that goes beyond previously suggested methods such as semantically tagging things, a method proposed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web.

But Wolfram said there's another way, analysing data and implementing methods and models, as algorithms, that "explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable".

He added that Wolfram Alpha is "like plugging into a vast electronic brain", and it offers impressive and precise answers to users' questions, without only looking up into any database for the purpose.

Wolfram has demonstrated the new search engine to Web pioneer Nova Spivack, who labelled the engine as important for the web as Google, but with a different purpose.

"[Wolfram Alpha] doesn't simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn't just a giant database of knowledge, like the Wikipedia," Spivack wrote in his blog. "It doesn't simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents, like Powerset, for example."

"Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions - like questions that have factual answers such as 'What is the location of Timbuktu?' or 'How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?', 'What was the average rainfall in Boston last year?', 'What is the 307th digit of Pi?', 'where is the ISS?' or 'When was GOOG worth more than $300?'"

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