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A computational knowledge engine for factual queries

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Conrad Wolfram, Director of International Strategy, Wolfram Alpha.
Conrad Wolfram, Director of International Strategy, Wolfram Alpha.

“An ambitious long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone” is a sentence that needs to be deconstructed word for word to understand what Wolfram Alpha ( www.wolframalpha.com) is all about.

Described as a computational knowledge engine, the brainchild of scientist Stephen Wolfram is not a search engine, according to its creators; although it would be easy to mistake the lone text box interface for representing one. It went fully live on May 18.

It would be simpler to understand Wolfram Alpha as a service provided over the Internet for obtaining answers based on “factual information rather than opinion,” said Conrad Wolfram, director of International Strategy, Wolfram Alpha, speaking to The Hindu in a recent interview.

“There are many pieces of factual information important for every day life.”

This includes the weather, the number of calories in your lunch or financial calculations for your shares. A search engine would provide you with a lot of relevant links, and you would need to scout for the answers. Wolfram Alpha computes the exact answer for you, he said, explaining how a computational knowledge engine would be relevant in the life of an average user.

Complicated task

But where does Wolfram Alpha get this information from? “We pre-curate the data,” said Mr. Wolfram. “We pull the data from many sources and then we work with that data with both human and computer intelligence. We put it into a standardised structure, add meaning and we work out how to compute results from it.”

It is a complicated task, he said, which would not have been possible without Mathematica, an engine with 50,000+ types of algorithms and models built into it.

“All the calculations are done by the software Mathematica. This setup allows us to pull data in such a useful form.”

This makes Wolfram Alpha different from a search engine which “curates on the fly,” he said.

“Standard search provides you a list and you as a human become a curator.” When the curation is done by the engine rather than the human, you get an answer, as opposed to a list, he added.

Does this mean Wolfram Alpha can provide answers to questions such as “what is the rating of X-Men origins in the blogosphere?”

This would also involve data, but of a different kind. “Right now we are not trying to go into that direction,” said Mr. Wolfram.

“You can argue which is fact or opinion,” he said, adding that rating a film was more opinion. “We are staying firmly on what we would call factual knowledge.”

Mathematical curve

So if playing around with a Koch curve (Mathematical curve) by changing the number of iterations is your cup of tea, Wolfram Alpha will not disappoint you. But when it comes to information that requires a cultural context, Wolfram Alpha has data drawn predominantly from U. S. sources.

If you use “Aishwarya Rai” as an input, you do get to know that she is an actor born in 1974 and hails from Mangaluru in Karnataka, said Mr. Wolfram. “We have got some thing in there, but by no means is it complete.”

“Our intention is to be international in everything,” he said. “But in practice, it is often easier to find data in the U.S.” Government data in the U.S. was much organised, he said, which made the job easier. “We are absolutely going to scale up from all places.” He added that the firm was planning to partner with experts in each field and country and also governments of different places. Inputs in different languages were possible, and that feature would be made available before outputs were translated, said Mr. Wolfram. “We don’t have a time scale yet,” as to when they would introduce such features, he added. “We are actively seeking partners who are interested in working on translating,” he said.

Business model

The business model of Wolfram Alpha would be different from that of a search engine — a search engine tries to get users off the site as soon as possible, whereas Wolfram Alpha would try to keep them on the site. “One of our potential business models is to have sponsorships and ads,” he said. He added that Wolfram Alpha was looking for partners in every region to see the services they may have where they would want to include the engine.


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