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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.



Macbook Users Attention: OS X El Capitan is Here

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Macbook users, did you know that the newest version of OS X is already available for download on 30 September? Are you still unsure whether to update it or not? Here is something you would like to know before you upgrade.


Honestly, this update of OS X is not a real breakthrough, rather a more routine refining of Yosemite. It mainly improved user experience in some details. Five major changes are:

  1. Split View



This is ranked as the first major change in this new OS X. Now users can arrange two windows under the full screen mode. To enter the Split View, you simply long click the green button on the left up corner. Then it will enter the full screen Split View mode and let you select another opened window to fill in the other half.


Honestly, the long click seems not an intuitive gesture for myself. The function will be very useful for users who need to multitask or need to refer to one window to work on another. However, for users who are not big fun of full screen mode, this new function will be rarely used. And there are already plug-ins that can realize a very similar effect, but not in a full screen mode.

In one word, Split View would be a good reason to upgrade for users who love full screen mode.

  1. New Layout in Mission Control

Another big change is in the layout of Mission Control. In previous OS X, windows of same application will be categorized and overlap with each other. Now, every single window is spread over the screen, with No overlapping, like this


It is hard to say if it is a good or bad move. It can a disaster for users who love to keep a lot of windows open at the same time (like me, never close a pdf in preview). It may take time for users to get used to the change.

  1. More powerful Notes

Finally, Notes can be a fast text editing tool, not only a plain text editor any more. Now you can have pictures, bullet points, and checklist. Maybe it is a move towards merging the Notes and Reminder.


  1. A better graphical experience

Apple claims to have a new graphic technology called Metal and it makes the graphic experience better and faster. It is a good news, especially for basic users like myself, who use mostly browser and PDF reader everyday.



  1. Something Else

Some other features include minor new functions in Safari, link to third party editing tool in Photos, improvements in Maps, better input methods for Chinese and Japanese. Apple also claim to have a better overall performance since they optimize their system to work more efficiently.


After all, OS X El Capitan worked more optimizing the details instead of making breakthroughs. There is no feature that enables a further collaboration with mobile devices this time, which I would say is quite disappointing. There is no big incentive to upgrade right away. But since it is only 6GB to download, maybe you will do this in some random afternoon break. It does not hurt right?