Wolfram Alpha and Google compared

There's been a lot of buzz lately about the new search engine computational knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha (which is still in beta but due to debut later this month). The search engine, developed by Stephen Wolfram (a former partical physics prodigy), is “like a cross between a research library, a graphing calculator, and a search engine.” It doesn't search through Web pages, and it will not help with movie times or camera shopping. What it does is answer questions. Using algorithms and formulae, it computes the answers to queries from enormous quantities of data in databases that are maintained by Wolfram Research or licensed from others. Wired says it is like an “anti-Google.” Meanwhile, Google has announced it's own data-centric service that currently includes data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau's Population Division David Talbot at MIT's Technology Review has written an article comparing how Wolfram and Google compare in answering the same questions. Neither was perfect. For example, in one test Talbot entered the query “cancer New York” and said that he was hoping to find statistics for the disease in the state of New York. Wolfram showed him where the Cancer constellation could be found in the night sky viewed from New York, when it would next rise and set, and included a map of the night sky. Google provided links to Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York, the New York State Department of Health's cancer page.

As a librarian, it seemed obvious from his report that what needs to be developed in both is something that would simulate the “reference interview”. Any librarian knows that if a library patron walked up the ref desk and said “I want to know about cancer and New York” we would do a reference interview to quickly find out what specific information the patron wanted to find.

If you're interested in learning more about WolframAlpha, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard recently held a sneak preview and discussion with Sephen Wolfram and Jonathan Zittrain (law professor at Harvard) and has posted video and audio on the Berkman website.