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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.
Where Wolfram/Alpha shines is when presented with queries like "distance between Mars and Saturn." It returns what, presumably, is the correct current distance between the two moving planets at the moment, 10.79 AU, or 89.76 minutes at the speed of light.

Google isn't even close: The first document returned is an article on Space.com that mentions Mars, Saturn, and Saturn's distance from the sun. But it makes no mention of the present distance between Mars and Saturn. And the second document returned is a WikiAnswers.com page that erroneously indicates the distance between the two planets is 23 miles.

Stephen Wolfram, the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, describes Wolfram/Alpha as a "new paradigm for using computers and the Web."

Indeed, it will make answering certain computable queries far easier than before. But Wolfram/Alpha is likely to remain a research tool for relatively sophisticated users until its knowledge base expands and its ability to understand poorly crafted queries improves.

At a recent media event about the state of search technology at Google, Google engineering VP Udi Manber observed that "if users can't spell, that's our problem." Google deals with misspellings and other query problems and its users appreciate Google's efforts to understand them.

Wolfram/Alpha does some spelling correction but it's far less tolerant of bad user input than Google. It's a bit like a child prodigy: brilliant in some respects, but lacking in the social graces necessary for broad acceptance. As it grows up and develops, its power and utility will become more widely apparent.


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