Coming Soon: "A Platonic Search Engine" That Promises to "Unearth Eternal Truths"


Stephen Wolfram, the guy who argues that the universe is essentially a gigantic cellular automaton (for details see his magnum opus, A New Kind of Science), will launch Wolfram|Alpha, which he calls a "computational knowledge engine". As Wolfram explains in an interview with mathematician and sci-fi author Rudy Rucker for H+ Magazine:

"Wolfram|Alpha isn't really a search engine, because we compute the answers, and we discover new truths.  If anything, you might call it a platonic search engine, unearthing eternal truths that may never have been written down before."

Despite his disclaimer, Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine, in that there's a one-line box where you type in a question.  The output appears a second or two later, as a page of text and graphics below the box.  What's happening behind the scenes? Rather than looking up the answer to your question, Wolfram|Alpha figures out what your question means, looks up the necessary data to answer your question, computes an answer, designs a page to present the answer in a pleasing way, and sends the page back to your computer.

Rucker then goes on to detail how the beta version answered some questions:

Let me give three random examples.  If you enter the query, "3/26/2009 + 90 days" you'll get a page that gives a date ninety days later than the first date.   If you enter "mt. everest height length of golden gate" you'll get a page expressing the height of Mount Everest as a multiple of the length of the Golden Gate Bridge.  If you enter "temperature in los gatos," you'll get something like the current temperature, a graph of the temperatures over the last week with projections for the next few days, and a graph of the temperatures over the last year.

Wolfram|Alpha can pop out an answer to pretty much any kind of factual question that you might pose to a scientist, economist, banker, or other kind of expert.  The exciting part is that you're not just looking up pages on the web, you're getting new information that's generated by computations working from the known data.  Wolfram says the response can be so speedy because, "We've found that, of all the things science can compute, most take a second or less."

Hmmm. So, is it shorter to New York or by bus

Whole fascinating H+ Magazine article here