Wolfram Alpha, often called a new search engine, and a replacement for google, Wolfram Alpha is said to understand natural language. This is a scientific advancement from the standpoint that google primarily uses word and phrase matching, and successfully assigns relevancy to words and phrases in its indexing methodology towards providing more relevant search results than MSN or Yahoo. However, when asking the question ‘is an angstrom bigger than a MM’ google first gives you a site that talks about the metric system and second a site talking about angstroms and electrons. Someone wondered if a search engine ought to answer correctly, i.e. “No, grasshopper”.

British inventor, Dr Stephen Wolfram is a PHD mathematician who has applied his knowledge towards computing and used computers in his work since 1973. I never touched anything more advanced than a calculator until 1981, and then was still skeptical due to the lack of a backspace key on the keypunch machines that produced the 80 column hollerith cards. Wolfram has advanced to looking at natural language, which involves advanced parsing and evaluation of meaning well before formulating results. Some of this is quite well established in computing, indeed the compilation of a Fortran program into machine language is a crude form of this, i.e. what does an IBM 370 understand to mean ‘please calculate the sum of the values stored in the symbolic location for “A” and “B” and store it in the symbolic location “C”‘. Of course, this result would be dozens of machine instructions.

Another approach that has a parallel to Wolfram Alpha would be the askjeeves search engine, which at least gives a sidebar with the questions ‘how big is an angstrom’ and ‘the metric system’, so with some reading and skill at opening links in new tabs, you can gather the information to answer the question. What Wolfram alpha really promises to finish is that last step, kind of like the cash register at Burger King starts with a picture of a hamburger on one key, and an apple pie on another key, and finishes by telling the fast food drive up window practitioner the exact change due to me, the patron.

Perhaps Wolfram Alpha can explain to me why they always put the bills in my hand, then the change on top so it rolls off on the ground, or why the wrong food always ends up in the bag.