But if you gave Wolfram Alpha every allowance–that is, if you asked it about subjects it knew, used search terms it understood, and didn’t care to know the primary source–it was detailed, intelligent, and graphically stunning. Searches for materials gave you diagrams of chemical compounds; searches on astronomy gave you maps of the night sky (geolocated on the basis of your computer’s IP address). It could do things the average person might want (such as generating customized nutrition labels) as well as things only geeks would care about (such as generating truth tables for Boolean algebraic equations). “Wolfram Alpha is an important advance in search technology in that it raises expectations about how content that is stored in databases should be searched,” Marti Hearst, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Search User Interfaces, told me. But she added that it “has a long way to go before achieving its ambitious goals.”
Some of these problems will be addressed by adding more data, an effort Wolfram says will continue indefinitely. To help the process, the site includes links for people to submit individual facts, entire structured data sets, and even algorithms and models. Unlike Wikipedia–where the process of adding and editing information is free and open, with checks and balances provided by the community–Wolfram Alpha plans to maintain a more centralized form of control, saying that its “staff of expert curators” will check the data before adding anything to the corpus. But some believe that expansion will be difficult without some automated or community-driven process, and without indexing the Web as search engines do. “At a certain point, calculation isn’t so useful if there isn’t the raw data to drive it,” says Weld of the University of Washington. “Google Squared is more the trend that I think will win this race.”
Indeed, even granting that his engine is only a start, some skeptics doubt that Wolfram’s approach will work for more than niche applications. “Although I have graduated as a mathematician and have a huge respect for anything mathematical, I am not sure you can handle all of the miseries of this world by mathematical formula and computation,” says the W3C’s Ivan Herman. Norvig echoed this objection. “There are certain data sets for which that [approach] is appropriate. If you are talking about atomic weight of gold–if different labs are off on that, they are off to the fifth or sixth decimal place, who cares?” Norvig says. “But many other things, there is no consensus. It depends what the data is. It depends what type of calculation you want to do. And if it’s non-numeric data, then it’s less clear what sort of calculation you can do.” And Weld piled on: “Imagine a question like ‘Who are the most dangerous terrorists?’ That’s a real hard one. Is someone a terrorist? How do we assess danger? And danger to whom? It is computationally very difficult to do that kind of reasoning.”
Still, in some cases Wolfram’s obsession with computation could serve certain users better than do the market-share-obsessed major search companies, who are, quite naturally, most interested in helping the masses get better results on queries they are already performing. “Let’s say that reviews of a particular hotel are scattered around several sites,” says Yahoo’s Raghavan. “Giving a summary rating is much more in line with what users tend to ask, rather than saying they want the combined populations of the Balkan countries in Eastern Europe. There is always one guy out there who has an arcane question to ask, but we have to maniacally focus on satisfying 99 percent of the population really well.”
In its first two weeks, Wolfram Alpha processed 100 million queries and received 55,000 pieces of feedback, suggesting more than a niche level of interest in deeper answers. “What Wolfram Alpha will do,” Wolfram says, “is let people make use of the achievements of science and engineering on an everyday basis, much as the Web and search engines have let billions of people become reference librarians, so to speak.” A Firefox add-on has already surfaced, allowing searchers to display Alpha results alongside Google results. And Wolfram says the engine will undergo continual improvement. Three weeks after launch he announced the first broad update to its code and data, including enhancements to the natural-language interface, more data on subcountry regions (such as Wales), a new ability to search for a stock price on a specific date, and “more mountains added, especially in Australia.”
Wolfram says he has invested “tens of millions” of dollars in Wolfram Alpha, atop “hundreds of millions” spent developing Mathematica over two decades. Advertising has started appearing alongside results, and he plans to offer a professional subscription version with more features. A programming interface (called an API) allows developers to build applications that can make Wolfram Alpha searches. “We’ll see if this is an exercise in philanthropy or a thriving business,” he told me.
Even Aaronson allows that the real judges will be the people. “Millions of people will try it, and either it will be useful or it won’t–and that’s the real test,” he says. “It’s not some abstruse claim about the nature of reality. It’s here as a useful service, and the test is, do people find it useful or not?”
David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.