Google rival Wolfram Alpha works… But only if you ask a very specific question

By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 4:04 PM on 18th May 2009

An internet search engine which can answer specific questions without throwing up millions of optional pages has launched today.

Wolfram Alpha first went live over the weekend for ‘pre-launch testing’ and answered 13.7million queries from people around the globe. Nearly 27,000 people sent feedback that the search engine designers will use to improve the site.

Enlarge WolframAlpha

Unlike Google WolframAlpha can answer precise questions with precise answers

Devised by renowned British physicist Professor Stephen Wolfram, the ‘computational knowledge engine’ whittles down the facts and provides you with a single, precise answer.

For instance, entering ‘what is the capital of Venezuela’ brings up the current answer (Caracas), but also a map of the area, and some facts about the population, and local time.

Entering the same search on Google gives you a mammoth 32,700,000 results.

However, ask it for restaurants in your local area and it won’t be able to help – as the question is far too general.

‘We can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can’t figure anything new out,’ Professor Wolfram said.

‘There will be one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms,’ he added.

wolfram alpha

The search engine can calculate any age from a birth date

Scientist and internet entrepreneur Nova Spivack was impressed with the search engine after he had a preview ahead of the launch.

‘It is like plugging into a vast electronic brain,’ Mr Spivack reported.

He said Alpha can answer questions about technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, and music.

‘Questions are broken down to their basic parts and then simple reasoning takes place, and answers are computed on the vast knowledge base in the system.

‘In fact it may be as important for the Web (and the world) as Google, but for a different purpose.’

Stephen Wolfram

Stephen Wolfram believes he has created the ultimate search engine

Professor Wolfram said people hoped computers would be able to answer questions accurately 50 years ago, but the task has proved too challenging until now.

‘I’d always thought,’ he wrote on his blog ‘that eventually it should be possible.’

The professor has dedicated his life to theoretical particle physics, computer algebra and computability theory.

Educated at Eton, he published an article on particle physics aged just 16, and went on to Oxford university, receiving a doctorate on particle physics from Caltech aged 20.

In 1987, he founded Wolfram Research to develop his computer algebra system Mathematica. The company promotes itself as an ‘intellectual pioneer’ and now has more than 300 staff. Professor Wolfram remains the CEO and majority shareholder.

Professor Wolfram said his online search engine was the most complex project that he had ever undertaken, and because human knowledge evolves, it will never be truly finished.

‘I think it’s going to be pretty exciting. A new paradigm for using computers and the web,’ he said.

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