Wolfram Alpha: A World based on Computation

Maybe the name, ‘Wolfram Alpha’, is more familiar to science students, but not for all business students. I got to know it because I used it to cheat on my calculus homework during Bachelor since it can easily give you the integral, limit, plot of x*sin(x).

It is a computational knowledge engine that was launched in 2009. It is actually not a brand new technology any more, but it is a revolutionary product that provides a possible direction for the future of information technology. People say it is ‘like a cross between a research library, a graphing calculator, and a search engine’. It looks like a search engine on interface but provides far more than a normal search engine like Google. The essential difference is that it gives you the answer to your question, based on a series of computation and processing of its database. Google can only give you a long list of resources where you may be able to find the answer.

For example, I can search for ‘life expectancy of 25 year old Dutch man’. The result looks like this:


While Google gives you this:


In some sense, Wolfram Alpha is very much like Siri, (though earlier than Siri) to process natural language and give you the answer directly. But Siri works better on natural language and voice processing and focus on more on questions for daily life, e.g. ‘where is the nearest McDonald’s’. But Wolfram Alpha pays more attention to data processing and computation, e.g. it gives stock price, financial figures, return forecasts when you type ‘McDonald’s’. Wolfram Alpha’s target is more about technical people than general public, and this is one reason why it is not known to everyone yet. Most people only care about where is the nearest McDonald’s rather than its financial performance. An interesting fact is that Siri uses Wolfram Alpha as a source of answer and in 2012, 25 percent of the traffic of Wolfram Alpha came from Siri.

Wolfram Alpha is said to be the first applied AI (weak artificial intelligence), since it very closely approximates the ability to ‘think’. As Stephen Wolfram, the founder of Wolfram Alpha, stated in his panel, if you ask Wolfram Alpha for the population of New York City, it will utilize both internal algorithmic work and real-world knowledge in order to compute it, rather than just searching for an accredited answer somewhere on the internet.

On the other hand, it is very different from what we usually think about AI, since we often think that AI is a logic algorithm that tries to mimic the human thinking and learning process. However, the thinking process of Wolfram Alpha is solely based on a complicated process of computation, not trying to replicate human thinking process at all. It cannot learn either. According to Stephen Wolfram, he tried working with artificial general intelligence (strong AI) but failed. He realized that a software can still provide useful knowledge without AGI. That is the reason he invented Wolfram Alpha, to build a smart system that can assemble all the existing knowledge, organize them and bring new knowledge. Wolfram Alpha achieved the goal and its ability to answer queries, organizing knowledge and processing knowledge makes it seem like it can think. This weak artificial intelligence is proved to be very practical and useful now. Maybe it will be a direction of future artificial intelligence development.







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4 responses to “Wolfram Alpha: A World based on Computation”

  1. maikelooms says :

    Thank you for posting this, It was an interesting read. What I like from the post is the difference between the two soft and hard artificial intelligence, something I did not know of before. I think it is very interesting to see how technologies such as these will evolve and be applied in the future, and personally I think that scientists should not focus on mimicing the minds of humans when working with computers. I believe that the human brain is bounded by certain limits (most emotional) which a computer should not be bounded by.

    Furthermore I am intrested to see if Wolfram Alpha will become a big competitor of google, as I think google is oftenly used to find a answer to a question, but it can sometimes be a bit difficult to retrieve this answer.

  2. eelkevdh says :

    Great article! I think it’s very interesting to see how the AI will develop. As you mentioned we’ve already a lot of weak AI, not only Wolfram but also AI like car navigation. The two questions that I have now are: is a strong AI possible and What will happen with humanity (to make it very philosophical) and business in particular. There is a great blogpost about this if you’re interested: http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-1.html

  3. gustavswritesforinformationstrategyorsomething says :

    Ok – if you are interested in Wolfram Alpha then you should watch this!


    Marvelous video of how Wolfram Alpha thinks, and how it creates the logic from those several words.
    It could be one of the most unappreciated technologies that there is, mostly cause it uses quite a different way of computing that typical algorithms. That is why I strongly believe that at one point Wolfram Alpha can give quite a boost in the computing. (not only SIRI’s answers)

    Honestly – watch it!

  4. 360162jd says :

    Very interesting article. Interesting to see how the weak artificial intelligence has developed over the last decade. I’m curious about the future of Wolfram Alpha though. I think the speed and development of the modern hardware will eventually put a hold to the development and opportunities of weak AI. I think, at a certain point in time, computers are able to solve everything where some kind of data is involved, like games etc. This point in time may be even closer than we think. Wondering if Wolfram will give the strong AI another try.

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