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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: ]

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