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5/18/2009
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Wolfram/Alpha Looks Beyond Search Toward Computation

Unlike Google, the newly debuted "computational knowledge engine" attempts to compute answers to questions based on established facts.

Wolfram Research, makers of the noted computational software Mathematica, on Monday launched Wolfram/Alpha, a service the company characterizes as a "computational knowledge engine."

It's not a search engine. Though widely compared to Google, Wolfram/Alpha does not try to match queries against a list of indexed documents. It attempts to compute answers to questions based on established facts.

Whereas Google takes an ambiguous query like "bass" and returns results related to the fish, the musical instrument, and the shoe brand, Wolfram/Alpha returns an array of nutritional data related to the fish.

Google can tell you where to find information about "the best restaurant in San Francisco." The data sources identified by Google may not be ones you'd agree with, but that's what you get when you ask a subjective question.

Wolfram/Alpha aspires to offer something more objective, answering queries not by matching keywords in an index but through computation. For example, if presented with the query $250 + 15%, it returns the correct answer, $287.50.

Google too can do this, if the query is constructed properly: (15% of 250) + 250. But Wolfram/Alpha is far more sophisticated in the kinds calculations it can perform, assuming it can turn the query into a proper equation.

When presented with questions related to its curated knowledge base that can be parsed, understood, and answered through computation, it performs brilliantly. Asked to find "the distance between New York and San Francisco," it not only returns 2,578 miles, but it also provides a calculation of travel time for a person in an airplane traveling at 550 mph (4.7 hours) and for light traveling through a fiber-optic cable (19.4 milliseconds), among other fact-based calculations.

Google returns links to pages that contain the distance between New York and San Francisco, but lacks the travel time computation.

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