If Wolfram/Alpha works as advertised, it will be able to do something Google can't: provide answers that don't already exist in indexed documents.
Google has a lot of would-be competitors, but no startup to date has put forth a credible challenge as a general-purpose Internet search engine. Only Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and, perhaps, Ask qualify for the search major league.
If and when Google is surpassed as a method for finding online information, it will be by a company that manages to come up with a better way to search. It won't be an improved search engine; it will be something that redefines the act of research itself.
Wolfram/Alpha could be that thing. Or it could the heir to the over-hyped "Ginger," the project that was supposed to change the world and turned out to be clever but short of revolutionary: the gyrostabilized Segway scooter.
But let's allow for the moment the possibility that it could change the search game.
Wolfram/Alpha is a computational knowledge engine. It's being developed by respected computer scientist Stephen Wolfram, creator of Mathematica, to compute the answer to any factual question.
With billions of pages of human knowledge online, we can conduct very efficient searches for terms and phrases in the text, Wolfram explained in a blog post.
"But we can't compute from that," he said. "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."
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