British physicist Stephen Wolfram today officially launched his new, massively-hyped search engine, Wolfram Alpha. Now for the inevitable letdown; and for the hard questions more journalists should have been asking weeks ago.
Wolfram Alpha has, inevitably, been repeatedly compared to Google. Of course: just like the fatally overhyped search engine Cuil, Wolfram Alpha was previewed for sympathetic press, who, with help from all sorts of other media, quickly raised expectations to unmeetable levels (a long and storied tech-industry tradition).
Wolfram is attempting to almost magically deduce useful, precise information from the mess of information that is the World Wide Web. That's a task that has thus far eluded even the scientist who invented the WWW itself, Tim Berners-Lee, who has spent more than a decade on a crusade to do basically the same thing through a system he calls the "Semantic Web."
In its present state, Wolfram Alpha excels at providing information people don't care about, like "How far will the Earth be from the Sun tomorrow?" or "the average body mass index of a 40-year-old male, whether the Eiffel Tower is taller than Seattle's Space Needle, and whether it is high tide in Miami right now." Try asking something more complicated and you get an error message like the one at left (Google might get this one wrong, but at least it tries!)
Will Wolfram Alpha ever improve? Sure, but it's hard to imagine it ever improving enough to be truly useful; human language itself lacks the precision to enable what Wolfram is attempting. Or so it would seem. As social tech professor and author Clay Shirky has written, "Actual human expression must take into account the ambiguities of the real world, where people, even those with real taste, disagree about what is interesting or affected..."
(UPDATE: Comments enabled; they were off due to a tech glitch.)