British physicist Stephan Wolfram officially announced a next-generation search engine called Wolfram Alpha last week and it is scheduled to launch sometime in May. Well… not exactly – you see, Wolfram Alpha is not exactly a search engine in a traditional sense – it is actually a “computational knowledge engine” for the web.
What does mean? Well to put it simply, Wolfram Alpha is an answer engine; you can type a query into Wolfram Alpha and it will understand your question and compute the answer instead of linking you to a listing of web pages. The idea is to provide academics, researchers, students, government employees, or anyone who needs it, one straightforward answer to their question instead of millions of ad-sponsored web pages.
So how exactly does Wolfram Alpha work? Well according to Nova Spivack’s article –
“(wolfram Alpha) uses built-in models of fields of knowledge, complete with data and algorithms, that represent real-world knowledge. For example, it contains formal models of much of what we know about science — massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties, as well as data about the physical world. Based on this you can ask it scientific questions and it can compute the answers for you. Even if it has not been programmed explicitly to answer each question you might ask it. But science is just one of the domains it knows about — it also knows about technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, music, and more.”
So will Wolfram Alpha be the Google killer some people expect it to be? No. Wolfram Alpha is not meant to be a “Google Killer”, it is something different, for a different purpose. It doesn’t compete with Google for document retrieval – it’s a very powerful calculator that doesn’t just work for math problems – it works for many other kinds of questions that have computable answers. The question remaining is, how will people use it, and for what? We will have to wait until May to play with Alpha and see what new direction the world of search will take with an “answer engine” now in play.