June 1, 2009 — -- Wolfram Alpha. It sounds like a code name from World War II, or perhaps a term a wildlife biologist would know.
Instead, it's the name of an audacious, if quirky, Web site led by the scientist Stephen Wolfram -- not a search engine, and not meant to be the "Google killer" that it was sometimes described as being, but a "computational knowledge engine." It is a Web site that will answer your questions -- at least some of them -- even if nobody has ever asked them before.
"What we're trying to do is much more ambitious," said Wolfram, 49, the lead developer of the technology behind the project, on which he says he has worked 25 years. "We're trying to take the question you ask, and automatically produce for you the answer, not giving you a collection of links, and saying, 'Go read this Web site, go read that Web site.'"
Nova Spivack, a technology entrepreneur who got a demonstration from Wolfram, said he was impressed. "Wolfram Alpha works in a new way," he wrote. "It computes answers instead of just looking them up."
Go to Wolfram Alpha's home page and you'll see a long rectangular box, much like the ones on Google, Yahoo or any number of search sites. If you enter any of the most common searches people make -- "American Idol," perhaps, or "free e-mail" -- you'll probably get one reply: "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input."
But ask it something more specific to your life -- the "quarter pound hamburger" you perhaps ate yesterday -- and it will tell you it had 297 calories, 22 percent of your fat allowance for the day, 19 percent of your sodium and so forth. If you enter "7 oz. burger," it will update the numbers.
Or try some math. Enter "square root of 41," and it will calculate the answer:
(If that's not precise enough for you, click where it says "More Digits.")
Wolfram Alpha: Answer Machine?
"People really want this sort of computable knowledge about the world," Wolfram said in an interview with ABC News. "It's very encouraging how people are using it."
What it's not good at is plain old information. If you type "Barack Obama" you'll get a neat table telling you he's a head of state, that his full name is Barack Hussein Obama II, and that he was born August 7, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is part of the United States. Want more? In the lower right you'll find a link to his biography -- on Wikipedia.
On the other hand, type "Barack Obama age" and you'll get something different: the president's age, down to the day. (It was 47 years, 5 months and 16 days when he was inaugurated.)
Wolfram says he has been working toward this kind of computing ability for 25 years. Born in Britain, he finished his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology at age 20, which is to say he was younger than most students getting their bachelor's degrees. In 1981, he was one of the first recipients of a MacArthur Award -- a so-called "genius grant" from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation -- to pursue his research in computer science. He used his time to create a powerful program for technical computing.
Much of his work may have seemed arcane to the general public but, in 2002, when he self-published a thick book titled "A New Kind of Science," it became a bestseller. Now that he has started a commercial Web site, he has attracted public notice again.
Are the major search sites worried about Wolfram Alpha? No, and yes. They have talked often about how online searches are good for finding information -- reliable or otherwise -- that others have posted, but not so great at answering questions themselves.
Microsoft's new Bing.com is billed as something more than basic search. Yahoo has modified its search algorithms.
And if you go to Google, you'll see they've been restless too. Enter "square root of 41," you will get 1.1 million links -- but the first thing you'll get is a calculated answer, much like Wolfram's:
"Square root(41) = 6.40312424."