Wolfram Alpha And The Holy Grail Of Search

Monty Python's Holy GrailImage by Bernt Rostad via Flickr

Here's today's Search Insider, via MediaPost

Search Insider: Stop! Who would claim to be the Bridge to the Death of Google
must answer me these questions three. What is your name?

Search
Engine:
Today, call me Wolfram
Alpha.
I was previously known as Microsoft, Powerset, and Cuil.

Search
Insider:
What is your quest?

Search
Engine:
To kill Google, of course. Actually, 'Google-killer' is just a
term used by lazy journalists. My real quest is to return the answer to any
factual question that you may have the nerve to ask, as
I discussed on my blog.

Search
Insider:
What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen
swallow?

Search
Engine:
What do you mean? An African or European swallow? I'll give you
the answer to both.

Google:
Auuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh!

Okay, perhaps that makes me a Monty Python killer, but people seem
to be pretty morbid these days. To wit, by 5 p.m. yesterday, I found 73
references of the phrase "Google killer" in Twitter, all relating to
Stephen Wolfram's new search engine, even though it's not due out until May. To
be fair, many of the references lampooned the phrase "Google killer"
and some saw the upstart as a complement to Google. The writer @burningbird
even speculated that it
could be a Wikipedia killer.
By midday, some of the punditry died down;
Wolfram Alpha fell out of the top Twitter trends just as National Napping Day
became the hot topic.

The buzz all stemmed from Nova Spivack, CEO and founder of Twine, blogging
about a preview of Wolfram Alpha:
"[Wolfram Alpha] may be as important
for the Web (and the world) as Google, but for a different purpose…
Basically… you can ask it factual questions and it computes answers for you.
It doesn't simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like
Google does, and it isn't just a giant database of knowledge, like Wikipedia.

Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a
wide range of questions — like questions that have factual answers such as
'What is the location of Timbuktu?' or 'How many protons are in a hydrogen
atom?,' 'What was the average rainfall in Boston last year?,' 'What is the
307th digit of Pi?,' 'Where is the ISS?' or 'When was GOOG worth more than
$300?'"

The image that comes to mind is of the
computer in the 1957 movie "Desk Set"
with Katharine Hepburn and
Spencer Tracy, one of those magical and oversized computing devices that can do
everything — it can even "translate Russian into Chinese," and it's
repeatedly referred to as the "electronic brain." Wolfram's 2009
vision is at least as ambitious.

The commentary from Wolfram and Spivack sheds light on how dumb
search engines still are. They will find facts, but you still have to do the
work compiling them. The "rainfall" question cited by Spivack feels
especially pertinent given all the travel planning I've done. Yes, the facts
are out there, and I've been able to check a couple weather sites to find the
average rainfall of a certain destination over the past five or ten years
during a certain time period, but I always hit some wall or another due to poor
usability or lack of data.

I just tried querying Google for "average rainfall belize
2003-2008 january february march," and the top results included Belize's
election history, country reports for Slovakia and Poland, and weather in
Spain. Yes, my query is not one that's asked every day, but I also wouldn't
expect search engines to answer it. The engines aren't training us to search
smarter. We'll only challenge Google and its peers so much because we can't
afford to waste our time sifting through the disappointing results about
elections and Poland when we want weather reports for Belize.

I'm not questioning Google's motives here; it's not trying to keep
us dumb or make us dumber. Yet there's a big difference between information
retrieval and computation. All of the semantic engines I've seen so far focus
on making retrieval better, while other engines try to change around the search
results page as if it needs some kind of digital feng shui. Wolfram Alpha
strikes me (one of the masses who hasn't seen it yet) as solving a new problem.
If it succeeds, congratulations, Mr. Wolfram, and thanks in advance. If it
doesn't, Wolfram is paving the way for others — perhaps even Google.

The biggest challenge for Wolfram Alpha has been enumerated often
enough: Most people aren't actively looking for an alternative to Google.

Wolfram
Alpha:
Go and tell everyone that we have been charged with a sacred
quest. If they will give us a few moments in May, they can join us in our quest
for the Holy Grail of Search.

Search
Insider:
Well, I'll ask them, but I don't think
they will be very keen. Uh, they've already got one, you see.

Wolfram
Alpha:
What?

Search
Insider:
They said they've already got one!

Wolfram
Alpha:
Are you sure they've got one?

Search
Insider:
Oh yes, it's very nice!

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One thought on “Wolfram Alpha And The Holy Grail Of Search

  1. I love the reference to Desk Set. It’s a fun film to revisit, not only for the entertainment value of the Tracy/Hepburn dynamic, but for a look back at how their generation viewed computing.
    I agree with you that the description of this “Google killer” really sounds more like an answer portal. It’s not a search engine. After all, aren’t search engines supposed to find sites, and return answers? It’s true that you used to be able to ask reference librarians for answers, and they would provide them. But their real job description was to point you toward books so you could look up the answers yourself.
    But back to your reference. I frankly think “Desk Set” is a great, retro name for Wolfram Alpha’s invention. Don’t you agree?
    Or perhaps, like Hepburn’s miraculous thinking giant, Wolfram should just pose it the question: “What would be the ideal name for you?” The results could be amusing, if not unnerving (“Awe, shucks. You can just call me ‘Googleslayer'”)

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