A Sneak Preview of Wolfram Alpha

It’s the new brainchild of Stephen Wolfram, author of Mathematica. It does look impressive in my opinion – can’t wait to try it live (due to launch some time in may)!

Defined as a Computational Knowledge Engine. It does an awful lot of number-crunching but looks more as a giant closed database than a distributed Web of data, or even a ‘Semantic web’.

Interesting the reaction of competitor Doug Lenat, who although is claiming that Wolfram is not AI (therefore CYC’s got nothing to fear) imho is realizing he didn’t get it right when he set out trying to capture ‘common sense’. After all, all that we find in Wolfram|Alpha is symbolic reasoning. Is that so far from the way Cyc works? This might be a nice departure point for an interesting discussion…

Lenat’s blog post contains some interesting comments on the things that Wolfram|Alpha can’t do (yet):

When it returns information, how much does it actually “understand” of what it’s displaying to you?  There are two sorts of queries not (yet) handled: those where the data falls outside the mosaic I sketched above — such as:  When is the first day of Summer in Sydney this year?  Do Muslims believe that Mohammed was divine?  Who did Hezbollah take prisoner on April 18, 1987? Which animals have fingers? — and those where the query requires logically reasoning out a way to combine (logically or arithmetically combine) two or more pieces of information which the system can individually fetch for you.  One example of this is: “How old was Obama when Mitterrand was elected president of France?”  It can tell you demographic information about Obama, if you ask, and it can tell you information about Mitterrand (including his ruleStartDate), but doesn’t make or execute the plan to calculate a person’s age on a certain date given his birth date, which is what is being asked for in this query.  If it knows that exactly 17 people were killed in a certain attack, and if it also knows that 17 American soldiers were killed in that attack, it doesn’t return that attack if you ask for ones in which there were no civilian casualties, or only American casualties.  It doesn’t perform that sort of deduction.  If you ask “How fast does hair grow?”, it can’t parse or answer that query.  But if you type in a speed, say “10cm/year”, it gives you a long and quite interesting list of things that happen at about that speed, involving glaciers melting, tectonic shift, and… hair growing.

Some nice coverage of it also on ReadWriteWeb and UMBC.


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