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Tuesday, 19 May 2009 03:34

WolframAlpha a long way from beta

While everyone seems to be aghast at the capabilities of new computational search engine WolframAlpha, most ordinary users will still be visiting Google and Wikipedia - unless they want help with mathematics, physics, chemistry or some obscure factoid involving measurement.

{loadposition stan}This is not to say the brainchild project of physicist and Mathematica inventor Stephen Wolfram isn't remarkable because it is. It's just that as it stands right now the aptly named WolframAlpha is a search engine with limited capabilities and needs a lot more development until it reaches even beta stage.

This is not a gripe but until a user can enter a reasonable query such as "life expectancy smoker"  without returning the answer "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input" then there is a lot more work to be done.

The above highlights the immediate problem with WolframAlpha - it demands too much of the user and often doesn't even try to return a result to a query. In fact the above example would seem to be a serious ommission given that life expectancy is a suggested category for users to try.

Alright then, criticism over, WolframAlpha is an amazing computational aid if you happen to be a student. If you want to to find the graph of a mathematical formula, the structure of a chemical compound or want to find the atomic weight of plutonium in a flash, then this is the search tool for you.

Likewise if you happen to be interested in trivia such as what was the weather like on the day you were born, then just enter your birthdate because WolframAlpha will automatically detect your location and look up the weather history to return a result.

The problem is that with search engines like Google and online information repositories like Wikipedia we have become spoiled. We have come to expect that we can get the answer we want no matter how sloppy we are with the question we ask.

WolframAlpha, like a physics teacher at school, bears no such sloppiness. If you want an answer to your question then, like computer code, you will have to learn how to input it correctly. And even then, if you expect an answer every time then you will be disappointed.

For many - perhaps most - users this will not be good enough. They will simply make the unfair comparison with Google.

However, WolframAlpha was unleashed in this embryonic stage presumably because the inventor wants input from the public to improve it - and that will happen.

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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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