While search engines like Google, by and large, find things that already exist on the Internet -- Web sites, photos, videos, blogs -- Wolfram Alpha answers questions, often by doing complex, and new computations.
According to the site, it uses a combination of linguistic analysis, curated data (including more than 10 trillion pieces of data with continuous updating), dynamic computation, and produces more than five thousand types of visual and tabular output types.
I know there's plenty of information out there about Brett Gardner because he plays for the New York Yankees, and he accomplished a pretty singular feat. Video footage would be available to compute the time element. So, I posed the question to Wolfram Alpha: "how fast did Brett Gardner go around the bases during his inside the park home run on May 15, 2009?"
After a bit of gear-grinding, Wolfram Alpha spat out the following: "Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input."
Okay, I thought, maybe my phrasing was a bit convoluted. Even if Wolfram claims the machine can understand natural language, I thought I'd give it the benefit of the doubt. So I tried a few different variations, with no success, finally boiling the question down to Brett Gardner speed. The best I could do is learn that one in 1,946 people in the United States have the surname Gardner.
On the other hand, I can type in "International Space Station," and Wolfram Alpha will not only tell me when it was launched, but will show me where it is right now, its velocity, and (because it knows where I am), the next time it will be visible in New York. And plenty more about the ISS.
Enter "Microsoft," and it will give you all kinds of financial and statistical data about Microsoft. But type [Board of Directors Microsoft] and you get the now-familiar "Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input."
Maybe asking Wolfram Alpha to give me the speed with which Brett Gardner circled the bases is a bit much, but asking for the Microsoft board of directors is exactly the kind of thing it was meant to provide. And yet no; maybe my question wasn't urbane or mathematical enough.
An elitist snob already left a comment on the Wolfram Alpha blog suggesting: "Open up alpha only to .edu and .org domains to get more serious users and not vanity random folks who will search for Britney and sex. This is how facebook launched - colleges first."
How sad that "voldemor" doesn't groove to the idea that the Interwebs should be a democratizing force, making it easy to discover and disseminate information.
The solution isn't to restrict information access to "serious users;" it's to come up with great tools like what we hoped Wolfram Alpha would be. The stated ambition of Wolfram Alpha is to improve steadily over time:
Wolfram|Alpha is an ambitious, long-term intellectual endeavor that we intend will deliver increasing capabilities over the years and decades to come.
But I'd really like to know how fast Brett Gardner ran around the bases Friday night. If Wolfram Alpha isn't ready for prime time yet, maybe Stephen Wolfram should have waited a bit longer to make it live. There's nothing more frustrating for a user than not getting the expected result from an online tool, and nothing worse for a Web site than to fail to live up to its own hype.