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SCIENCE

'Wolfram Alpha', a search engine that understands

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2009-05-18

This weekend, English scientist Stephen Wolfram activates the first intelligent search engine capable of understanding the meaning of questions put to it. Is this the biggest thing since Google?

Can a search engine respond coherently to a complex question? Mathematician Stephen Wolfram believes it can, and will prove it by putting Wolfram Alpha, the first intelligent search engine, online this weekend. More than 5,000 Internet users hope their complex questions will be answered too. They’ve been following the site’s launch live since Friday evening on justin.tv and Twitter. This new type of competitor to Google should be fully operational on May 18.

 

It’s been a month since Wolfram Alpha buzz invaded the Web, via a YouTube video. In the video, Wolfram presents his new "baby" to an enraptured audience. To the question "What is the unemployment rate in France?", the engine responds in numbers, pie charts and other charts. Wolfram Alpha even understands the query: "How fast does hair grow?"

 

Nearly 100,000 viewings later, specialized and mainstream sites such as Twine and the BBC refer to the project as being “as important as Google”. Even Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin admits to following the experiment closely.

 
 
The Net’s Holy Grail
 

Semantic search - in which the search engine understands the meaning of words - is one of the Internet’s holy grails. All previous attempts in this direction had failed, till Wolfram’s new online tool rekindled the wildest dreams of all kinds of geeks. Regarded as a genius mathematician - he earned his doctorate in particle physics when he was 20 years old - he is an outstanding inventor. He’s been working on his search engine for more than five years, and claims to have developed the "most advanced algorithms at present."

While such an online tool does sound mouthwatering, a reporter's first few hits on Wolfram Alpha were a little disappointing. First of all, it's impossible to use a language other than English. Secondly, the engine currently concentrates solely on scientific and statistical issues. Finally, some of the data isn’t up to date.

Wolfram responds that a baby learns every day. Users can only hope that he and his staff are skilled enough to make his search engine a success.

Date created : 2009-05-17

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