Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) – When a free Web service called WolframAlpha launches in the coming days, the general public will get to try a “computational knowledge engine” that has had technology insiders buzzing because of its oracle-like ability to spit out answers and make calculations.

Which has a bigger gross domestic product, Spain or Canada? What was New York City’s population in 1900? When did the sun rise in Los Angeles on Nov. 15, 1973? How far is the moon right now? If I eat an apple and an orange, how much protein would I get?

WolframAlpha will tell you – without making you comb through links as a search engine would. It also will graphically illustrate answers when merited. So if you query “GDP Spain Canada” you’d see a chart indicating that Spain’s economy was smaller than Canada’s most of the time since 1970 and recently pulled ahead.

That’s pretty clever.

Yet after testing the service for a few weeks, I think WolframAlpha is unlikely to become a household name – and not just because of the gauze-in-the-mouth logjam of two “f” sounds in the title. While WolframAlpha is brilliant at times and elegant in its display, there aren’t many ways everyday Web users would benefit from using it over other resources.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m troubled by the potential for WolframAlpha. I fear the implications of an information butler that is considered so smart and so widely applicable that people turn to it without question, by default, whenever they want to know something.

What’s that, you say? We already have such a service?

Well, for all the fears that Google is making us stupid by making it too easy to look up information, at least Google and its rivals enable the critical thinking that comes from scoping out multiple sources.

Unlike search engines that deliver links that match keywords in your query, WolframAlpha is more of a black box. If you have it perform a calculation, it gives you an answer, along with a small link for “source information.” Open that and you’ll generally be told the data was “curated” – found and verified – by the company behind WolframAlpha. In other words, “trust us.”

The site does suggest ways to track down similar information from other sources, including government statistics, proprietary databases, almanacs and the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia. To confirm WolframAlpha’s data I went a suddenly old-fashioned route – through Web searches on Google and Yahoo. I didn’t find any errors, but taking that step made me wonder why I didn’t just use Google or Yahoo to begin with.

WolframAlpha comes from Stephen Wolfram, 49, a British-born physics prodigy who earned a Caltech Ph.D. at age 20 and won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” at 21. Wolfram went on to focus on complexity theory, especially the idea that patterns in nature could emerge from simple rules, and founded Champaign, Ill.-based Wolfram Research Inc., which develops advanced math and analysis software called Mathematica.

Because Mathematica includes data “curated” by more than 100 Wolfram employees, over the years the company has built a wide knowledge base. Now WolframAlpha lets the wider world have a crack at it.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Web

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me
×

A Place of Inspiration

Understand the technologies that are changing business and driving the new global economy.

September 23-25, 2014
Register »