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Our story describes a new kind of search engine, Wolfram Alpha. In fact, its inventor, the physicist and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram, dislikes the word search: he calls it a “computational knowledge engine.” Alpha, writes Talbot, is “meant to compute answers rather than list Web pages.” It consists of “three elements … a constantly expanding collection of data sets, an elaborate calculator, and a natural-language interface for queries.”

Alpha, too, represents a particular point of view–that of its creator. Wolfram’s monumental book, A New Kind of Science (2002), explains how the complex world can be reduced to simple rules, and how those rules are computable. Alpha will be the first major application of his theories: an experiment to see how much of what is known can be expressed in straightforward answers.

About these fundamental questions, views differ. Ivan Herman of the World Wide Web Consortium tells Talbot, “Although I have graduated as a mathematician … I am not sure you can handle all of the miseries of this world by mathematical formula and computation.” Another critic provides an example: “Imagine a question like ‘Who are the most dangerous terrorists?’ … Is someone a terrorist? How do we assess danger? And danger to whom? It’s computationally very difficult to do that kind of reasoning.”

Perhaps, speculates Daniel Tunkelang, the cofounder of the search company Endeca, there is a better way to approach the problem of building a search engine (see “To Search, Ask). “What we need is human-computer information retrieval. … Rather than guessing what users need, these tools provide users with opportunities to clarify and elaborate their intent. If the engine isn’t sure what users want, it just asks them.”

Now there’s an alternative that is somehow shocking: Ask the questioner. Write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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Credit: Mark Ostow
Video by Conrad Warre and Brittany Sauser

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