Wolfram Alpha - Join the 0.1 Percent!

Category: Search-Engines

Have you heard about Wolfram|Alpha? It sounds like a secret society of zoologists, but it's actually a very cool search engine that can answer natural language questions by crunching data, numbers and a little secret sauce. Here's the scoop on what you can do with Wolfram|Alpha...

What the Heck is a Computational Knowledge Engine?

Don't insult Wolfram|Alpha by calling it a search engine. I'm calling it the world's largest real-time encyclopedia, but according to its creators, it's a computational knowledge engine that combines the power of the web, many specialized databases, several million lines of code, and over 10,000 CPUs. After incubating for about 20 years, WolframAlpha was released to the masses in May 2009. Since then, it has expanded its database, and along with that, the ability to process and answer "natural language" queries.

Think about this... would you rather get answers based on facts, or on how clever a certain website has been with search engine optimization? Stephen Wolfram, creator of Wolfram|Alpha, and a select team of experts have managed to capture over 10 trillion of pieces of data, 50,000 types of algorithms and models, and over 1000 domains to come up with a system capable of answering questions, instead of just finding web pages that match a given keyword.

Wolfram|Alpha search engine

With your basic search engine, you enter a search term, and it will then point you to other sites that are relevant. You can choose to narrow it down from there. But with Wolfram|Alpha, you get information about the term, questions answered in real time, as well as other links.

What Can Wolfram|Alpha Do?

Thailand So what exactly can this search tool do? In a nutshell, it will answer a question or perform a calculation based on facts. Subjects such as food and nutrition, life sciences, chemistry, organizations, engineering, and money and finance are all included in the data base.

For example, I entered "Thailand" and got everything I ever wanted to know about it and more, including map location, topographical data, demographics, cultural properties and largest cities. I also got links to more data on the Web. By comparison, Google's top results are mostly about tourism and travel, although the new Knowledge Graph on the right does present a map with some basic facts and figures about the country. (See my related article Is Google's Knowledge Graph Good or Evil?)

Enter a specific date and it will tell you how long ago it was, notable events, what famous people were born on it and even what phase the moon is in. I queried "May 25 2007" and found it was the date of two plane crashes, and the 15th anniversary of Johnny Carson's retirement from the Tonight Show. For some reason, Wolfie wasn't aware that this is also my anniversary. Oh well, I have Google Calendar for that.

I then asked "When is Groundhog Day 2013?" and it dutifully replied "Saturday, February 2, 2013". A more generic query of "groundhog day" gives the answer for the current year, and reveals that Wolfram|Alpha also has info about the movie "Groundhog Day", in case that's what you were after.

Next, I entered the word "pink." The color came up, along with a swatch and what colors it is made from. Click on "person" and you get the singer Alecia Beth Moore, aka Pink. I also found it is the name of a magazine and "a person with mildly leftist political views." I then gave it a real challenge with the word "Spam." Wolfram|Alpha assumes it is a food and proceeded to give me calorie count and other nutritional facts. Thank goodness it didn't give me the exact ingredients. There was also an option to use it as a word and I received the information, "a canned meat made largely from pork." Interestingly, it didn't suggest the alternative cyberslang definition referring to unsolicited commercial email, unless I entered the word "spam" in lowercase. But it did tell me the Scrabble score for the word (8 points) and its equivalent on the telephone keypad (7726).

What Wolfram|Alpha Isn't So Good For

Remember that this is a tool that eats facts and spits out information. So Wolfram|Alpha is a bit like a nerd at a cocktail party. He can tell you that it would take 4.39 years to reach Alpha Centauri (some 25.81 trillion miles away) if you were in a ship travelling at the speed of light. But his scientific calculator won't help him figure out what songs are on the Billboard Top 40.

Ask about math, science and other specific things that can be calculated from known facts, and you'll get very interesting results. Here are a few examples:

Enter a formula like "x^2 sin(x)" graph of formula
How old was Steve Jobs when he died? 56 years, 7 months and 11 days (or 495934 hours)
Current time in London clock
Weather in Boston June 15 1999 weather

But enter something obscure and it will tell you it doesn't know what to do with your input. It won't find a song that you want by using part of the lyrics, or tell you who sang "Blinded By The Light." It knows that "Kenny Rankin" is a person's name, but not that he was a popular musician.

Definitely NOT a Google Killer...

Three years ago when Wolfram|Alpha was introduced, I speculated that Google, Yahoo or Microsoft might buy it and making it a valuable addition to their search results. That hasn't happened, but Microsoft, Apple and some other companies do license the data in various ways. Microsoft Bing uses it to power some queries, and you'll find answers provided by Wolfram|Alpha showing up in Apple's Siri app. In fact, Siri now accounts for about 25% of all queries processed by Wolfram|Alpha.

And from all appearances, Google, Bing and Yahoo needn't worry about Wolfram|Alpha taking over the world any time soon. Below are the April 2012 search engine market share numbers from StatCounter. So if you want to join the "0.1 Percent Club" you can make Wolfram|Alpha as your first choice for Internet searches.

Google 82.9%
Bing 8.4%
Yahoo 7.4%
Ask 0.6
AOL 0.6%
Other 0.1%

When the team first began the project, they based it on reference books and libraries. However, they plan on expanding their scientific, technical and other quantitative information. Visit the Wolfram|Alpha forum to find out what they are up to, make suggestions and participate. There's also a "How To" forum if you need help formulating Wolfram|Alpha queries. If you are an expert on any subject, you might find yourself as part of the team.

The goal is to make this knowledge complete, so that "it is possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything." That's a ton of stuff and so ambitious that it will take decades to accomplish. Wolfram|Alpha makes money from advertising on the website, but there's also a $2 iPhone app available. The subscription-based Wolfram|Alpha Pro lets you upload images, spreadsheets, text files, audio, 3D models, and all sort of math/science data, then perform analysis or calculations on the data.

Post your comment or question below about Wolfram|Alpha...

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Most recent comments on "Wolfram Alpha - Join the 0.1 Percent!"

Posted by:

25 May 2012

For stats, try www.zanran.com. It's great.

Posted by:

25 May 2012

Wolfram Alpha is an awesome program/search engine. You find the neatest stuff. Thanks!

Posted by:

Jim Peabody
25 May 2012

Not best as a search engine. Try comparing two similar things, that's where it shines.

islam catholic

Not case sensitive, Islam clues it that catholic doesn't refer to world wide.

Posted by:

Patrick Palmer
25 May 2012

No nerd at a cocktail party would ever say what you have written Bob. That's what a non-nerd (yourself?) would say at a cocktail party.

"Light Years" are a measure of distance, not of time. So what the true nerd at the cocktail party would say is "I can tell you that it would take 4.39 years to reach Alpha Centauri . . ."

And I can but hope that that is also what Wolfram|Alpha would say!

Posted by:

25 May 2012

Hi Bob. Do you know of a free texting service for use by organizations, like churches, block watch etc? Due to a spike in burglaries in my neighborhood, I'd like to be able to quickly send a text about suspicious strangers to my elderly neighbors that all would receive, and for each of them to do the same. Most of them have cellphones, but few are smart phones, and entering individual numbers into a group on their phone would be a challenge for them. If they could just subscribe to a group online, it would be great. Thanks. Jim

Posted by:

25 May 2012

Seems like Sheldon Cooper lives in new form.

Posted by:

25 May 2012

I tested it with "Chaliapin." I'm a musician, so I'm thinking of the legendary 19th century Russian opera singer. Wolfram Alpha told me it was a minor planet between Jupiter & Mars. I did not know this. Meaning it's more or less an asteroid? More details, Wolfie! Nothing on the singer though.

Google Knowledge Graph didn't do so hot with Chaliapin either. "No posts found."

Posted by:

Joe Harold
27 May 2012

Intriguing. Added to my search engine list. Thanks.
And a belated happy anniversary, Bob.

Posted by:

28 May 2012

Underwhelmed Bob. I offered it the word “Shushan” which I know as the capital of ancient Persia and scene of the fascinating events depicted in the biblical book of Esther but it only managed one entry, about a “feature on the planet Venus”.
Now that is nerdy way beyond my needs. Duckduckgo came up with loads of useful information and Google zapped me 2,450,000 items in a nanosecond.
I won’t be bookmarking it…

Posted by:

Robert Moulton
28 May 2012

Very nice. But it apparently doesn't run on Firefox.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Runs fine on Firefox, Chrome and IE for me...

Posted by:

06 Oct 2012

Interesting, but it fails at a pretty easy calculation. I asked it "How many electric vehicles in the USA" and it answered nothing, claiming that something like "green section is under development". By the way the first remark here about www.zanran.com works surprisingly good for the same question. So one way or another, this search engine helps to find a way to answer a question. Even through comments. ;)

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