Joho the Blog » How important is WolframAlpha?

How important is WolframAlpha?

The Independent calls WolframAlpha “An invention that could change the Internet forever.” It concludes: “Wolfram Alpha has the potential to become one of the biggest names on the planet.”

Nova Spivak, a smart Semantic Web guy, says it could be as important as Google.

Ton Zijlstra, on the other hand, who knows a thing or two about knowledge and knowledge management, feels like it’s been overhyped. After seeing the video of Wolfram talking at Harvard, Ton writes:

No crawling? Centralized database, adding data from partners? Manual updating? Adding is tricky? Manually adding metadata (curating)? For all its coolness on the front of WolframAlpha, on the back end this sounds like it’s the mechanical turk of the semantic web.

(“The mechanical turk of the semantic web.” Great phrase. And while I’m in parentheses, ReadWriteWeb has useful screenshots of WolframAlpha, and here’s my unedited 55-minute interview with Wolfram.)

I am somewhere in between, definitely over in the Enthusiastic half of the field. I think WolframAlpha [WA] will become a standard part of the Internet’s tool set, but is not transformative.

WA works because it’s curated. Real human beings decide what topics to include (geography but not 6 Degrees of Courtney Love), which data to ingest, what metadata is worth capturing, how that metadata is interrelated (= an ontology), which correlations to present to the user when she queries it (daily tonnage of fish captured by the French compared to daily production of garbage in NYC), and how that information should be presented. Wolfram insists that an expert be present in each data stream to ensure the quality of the data. Given all that human intervention, WA then performs its algorithmic computations … which are themselves curated. WA is as curated as an almanac.

Curation is a source of its strength. It increases the reliability of the information, it enables the computations, and it lets the results pages present interesting and relevant information far beyond the simple factual answer to the question. The richness of those pages will be big factor in the site’s success.

Curation is also WA’s limitation. If it stays purely curated, without areas in which the Big Anyone can contribute, it won’t be able to grow at Internet speeds. Someone with a good idea — provide info on meds and interactions, or add recipes so ingredients can be mashed up with nutritional and ecological info — will have to suggest it to WolframAlpha, Inc. and hope they take it up. (You could to this sorta kinda through the API, but not get the scaling effects of actually adding data to the system.) And WA will suffer from the perspectival problems inevitable in all curated systems: WA reflects Stephen Wolfram’s interests and perspective. It covers what he thinks is interesting. It covers it from his point of view. It will have to make decisions on topics for which there are no good answers: Is Pluto a planet? Does Scientology go on the list of religions? Does the page on rabbits include nutritional information about rabbit meat? (That, by the way, was Wolfram’s example in my interview of him. If you look at the site from Europe, a “rabbit” query does include the nutritional info, but not if you log in from a US IP address.) But WA doesn’t have to scale up to Internet Supersize to be supersized useful.

So, given those strengths and limitations, how important is WA?

Once people figure out what types of questions it’s good at, I think it will become a standard part of our tools, and for some areas of inquiry, it may be indispensable. I don’t know those areas well enough to give an example that will hold up, but I can imagine WA becoming the first place geneticists go when they have a question about a gene sequence or chemists who want to know about a molecule. I think it is likely to be so useful within particular fields that it becomes the standard place to look first…Like IMDB.com for movies, except for broad, multiple fields, with the ability to cross-compute.

But more broadly, is WA the next Google? Does it transform the Internet?

I don’t think so. Its computational abilities mean it does something not currently done (or not done well enough for a crowd of users), and the aesthetics of its responses make it quite accessible. But how many computational questions do you have a day? If you want to know how many tons of fish France catches, WA will work as an almanac. But that’s not transformational. If you want to know how many tons divided by the average weight of a French person, WA is for you. But the computational uses that are distinctive of WA and for which WA will frequently be an astounding tool are not frequent enough for WA to be transformational on the order of a Google or Wikipedia.

There are at least two other ways it could be transformational, however.

First, its biggest effect may be on metadata. If WA takes off, as I suspect it will, people and organizations will want to get their data into it. But to contribute their data, they will have to put it into WA’s metadata schema. Those schema then become a standard way we organize data. WA could be the killer app of the Semantic Web … the app that gives people both a motive for putting their data into ontologies and a standardized set of ontologies that makes it easy to do so.

Second, a robust computational engine with access to a very wide array of data is a new idea on the Internet. (Ok, nothing is new. But WA is going to bring this idea to mainstream awareness.) That transforms our expectations, just as Wikipedia is important not just because it’s a great encyclopedia but because it proved the power of collaborative crowds. But, WA’s lesson — there’s more that can be computed than we ever imagined — isn’t as counter-intuitive as Wikipedia’s, so it is not as apple-cart-upsetting, so it’s not as transformational. Our cultural reaction to Wikipedia is to be amazed by what we’ve done. With WA, we are likely to be amazed by what Wolfram has done.

That is the final reason why I think WA is not likely to be as big a deal as Google or Wikipedia, and I say this while being enthusiastic — wowed, even — about WA. WA’s big benefit is that it answers questions authoritatively. WA nails facts down. (Please take the discussion about facts in a postmodern age into the comments section. Thank you.) It thus ends conversation. Google and Wikipedia aim at continuing and even provoking conversation. They are rich with links and pointers. Even as Wikipedia provides a narrative that it hopes is reliable, it takes every opportunity to get you to go to a new page. WA does have links — including links to Wikipedia — but most are hidden one click below the surface. So, the distinction I’m drawing is far from absolute. Nevertheless, it seems right to me: WA is designed to get you out of a state of doubt by showing you a simple, accurate, reliable, true answer to your question. That’s an important service, but answers can be dead-ends on the Web: you get your answer and get off. WA as question-answerer bookends WA’s curated creation process: A relatively (not totally) closed process that has a great deal of value, but keeps it from the participatory model that generally has had the biggest effects on the Net.

Providing solid, reliable answers to difficult questions is hugely valuable. WolframAlpha’s approach is ambitious and brilliant. WolframAlpha is a genius. But that’s not enough to fundamentally alter the Net.

Nevertheless, I am wowed.[Tags: ]

19 Responses to “How important is WolframAlpha?”

  1. I think that Wolfram Alpha will have a profound impact on mathematical literacy. Just like spreadsheets made financial information accessible, and search engines made boolean searches accessible, Wolfram Alpha will let us link to and reference mathematical models in our online conversations, which means that people who are mathematically illiterate won’t be able to shut down and keep out mathematical ideas.

  2. David- I think you’re wrong with respect to your final point. The overwhelming sense I get from the WA demos is of its utility as a way to test hypotheses quickly and easily, as part of a process involving scientific method. That is not a closed process at all. The idea of expanding that form of inquiry to the user population of the Web, in the way that Google expanded traditional reference work is to my mind very exciting.

  3. I think Wolfram Alpha will have a strong impact on Dell’s finances too ;-)

  4. Bradley, very interesting. Can you say more about what you mean? What sorts of hypotheses do you have in mind? — David W.

  5. Google Labs will steal the idea.

  6. for social studies is extremely risky though
    if people start to believe at the numbers and ‘facts’ about each and every country of the planet
    the illusion of a perfect world will be one step away
    with data kept easily out of their database
    and so on

    for the scientific research
    I am just stunned

  7. Hi David, thanks for these additional thoughts on where the (transformative) value of Wolfram Alpha is. I think you’re covering both my concerns with, as well as my hopes for Wolfram Alpha :)

  8. Excellent. Simple excellent.
    From what I think the impact comes from something deeper in computer history. For me WA looks like the first Elektronengehirn (electronic or computer brain). Something Cybernetics dreamed of in the 50ies. Since then the landscape changed. But with WA the dream comes back.

    It is completly wrong that the news wrote about a “Google Killer” just because search is involved in a way. What I see from people who had a chance to see WA is always the same: “Nevertheless, I am wowed.” This is a feeling. A feeling that will change the way coder or hacker will see their work.
    From that add the ideas that followed the 50ies till todays social cloud computing – thats what I think the impact will be. A new step in computer’s ability to think.

    When a system to organize data could be a first impact, a standard to compute data could be the next. Then you wont ask Google, you probably ask a robot at home – a robot that runs a WA System ;-)

  9. I like this blog. My site you will like

  10. Oh please! This is hardly more than the old “back-of-the-napkin” kind of stuff. Perhaps useful in some cases for 1st order estimation but without recourse to the background calculations and data it’s hardly verifiable. You could say in court that you “wolfed” the question rather than googled it cause you needed a number. Why not 42? Thats pretty good.

  11. I have a pretty easy example

    few days ago with an engineer friend we were discussing, blathering, about a possible 3 dimensional mouse built from the principles of the theremin, 2 antennas that track hands movements
    he had to call to his lab and ask someone to collect any info available about the required properties of such antennas
    people asked other people and after few days we had an answer, ‘the antenna would be too big to be any good”
    they had to find which material and wich shape and so on

    we could have wolfed that question and moved over another idea, may be another stupid one, but quickly
    and move from the search results

    given the ammount of people allowed to use this engine in the near future
    I think is pretty easy to see another big fast forward in technology developments

  12. Good post.
    Not sure whether WA will be ‘google killer’ probably not, but i definitely see high potential for more usage of the semantic web in every aspect (search, advertising – like http://www.contextin.com, deep web analytic, etc.)

  13. I have read the introduction of Wolfram Alpha in some posts. Apparently, Wolfram Alpha is not a much smarter search engine than Google. It only searches for information on the web to answer one’s question. The question can only be very simple. I don’t believe it can answer such question as “Is room temperature superconductivity possible?”

  14. “not likely to be as big a deal as Google or Wikipedia”

    Properly not, and also not as popular and known as Google or Wikipedia, but if it helps to find answers that go beyond “42″, I am sure it will be quite successful nevertheless. I think what matters in the end is what ppl use (does that count as “transformative”?) – rather than the perfect knowledge hub that combines everything from everyone with perfect algorithms & scientific blessings.

  15. [...] Almanac of the Web (David Weinberger) [...]

  16. You don’t seem to be put off by the terms of use[1], which prohibit anything other than casual, direct human use, demand attribution, prohibit use in any for-profit context and generally take themselves very seriously indeed. For me this is a huge dampener on the whole thing, not least because I lost the solid line between work and play long ago.

    [1] http://www57.wolframalpha.com/termsofuse.html

  17. [...] prompts you to disambiguate queries that apply to multiple domains.)Looking for more information? David Weinberger has a good analysis of the underpinnings of Wolfram|Alpha and what it might mean for those of us in [...]

  18. At this time I am going to do my breakfast, afterward having my
    breakfast coming again to read further news.

  19. Thank you, I’ve recently been searching for information approximately
    this topic for ages and yours is the best I’ve found out till now.
    But, what concerning the bottom line? Are you certain concerning the supply?

Leave a Reply


Web Joho only

Comments (RSS).  RSS icon