weekend silliness: Wolfram Alpha

Early in the wee hours this morning, a factual data oriented search engine cum calculator called Wolfram Alpha launched. (You can read an initial review on TechCrunch.) Instead of pointing you to webpages with information as Google does, it collates selected facts in its database and presents it to you in a page of charts and numbers. It’s mostly geared toward mathy or sciency topics. For example, you can search for a string of DNA by entering a sequence of basepairs and you can quickly see a payment plan for a mortgage with specified interest rates, but you can’t get any band fan sites or things of that ilk.

I do wonder if this will throw an inadvertant monkey wrench into math and science education. I can imagine science teachers throwing up their hands as their students use Wolfram Alpha to solve problems they would normally have to think out or solve by hand. But maybe this is what people said about the calculator. Maybe this will enable the teaching of a higher level of problem solving.

The question that comes to my mind is what you’re supposed to do with this data. Can we extract those graphs and charts easily? Google has been working on a similar app called Google Squared which returns your results in a spreadsheet. This is less visually impressive, but seems to be a more powerful if you actually want to use or manipulate the data for your own purposes.

Google is no doubt working on semantic web apps already, and I suspect they’ll swallow up the good bits of Wolfram Alpha (or any new web and info related thing that isn’t utterly groundbreaking) and implement it themselves very quickly. I can easily see a new Google tab containing exactly what WA offers. Competing with all the info on the web with curated data stored in your own databases seems to be a losing proposition. So far WA looks like an encyclopedia and calculator rolled up into one and made interactive, which is very impressive, but surely there are more interesting things to be done with the idea of the semantic web.

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~ by Jin on May 16, 2009.

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