April 30, 2009
A new Web tool that provides direct answers to people's questions is scheduled to launch next month, and at least one expert says the new "knowledge engine" could one day prove as important as Google.
WolframAlpha, named after creator British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram, uses a technique called natural language processing to deliver answers, rather than a list of Web pages provided by Google and most other search engines.
What makes WolframAlpha different is the underlying technology that computes answers instead of looking them up in a huge database.
"In a nutshell, Wolfram and his team have built what he calls a 'computational knowledge engine' for the Web," Nova Spivak, founder of the information-gathering Web tool Twine, said in a recent blog post.
Spivak said the Wolfram tool "may be as important for the Web, and the world, as Google, but for a different purpose. It's not a 'Google killer.' It does something different. It's an answer engine rather than a search engine."
Wolfram recently demonstrated his creation at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The Web tool does more than just answer questions by also helping users discover more information and relationships about things. The answers provided include computed data or facts, plus relevant diagrams, graphs, and links to other related questions and sources.
Wolfram's company, Wolfram Research, operates the knowledge engine, which computes answers from the trillions of pieces of data gathered and managed by the team of experts responsible for the Web tool. The data is drawn from public and licensed database, along with live Web feeds, such as free stock prices and weather information.
Much of the data used today is scientific, but some limited cultural information about celebrities and movies has also been added.
The ability to use natural language is considered the Holy Grail in communications between people and computers. Such advancements are considered pivotal in eventually weaving computers into the fabric of people's lives seen only in science fiction movies today.
"The way humans normally communicate is through natural language," Wolfram said in a recent blog post. "And when one’s dealing with the whole spectrum of knowledge, I think that’s the only realistic option for communicating with computers too."
While acknowledging that WolframAlpha is only a start for his team, the physicist said, "I think it's going to be pretty exciting ... a new paradigm for using computers and the Web."
Wolfram isn't the first to offer a knowledge engine on the Web. Question answering system Start was launched on the Web more than 15 years ago. The technology was developed by Boris Katz and his associates of the InfoLab Group at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
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