Wolfram Alpha – The Beginning of So Much More

Wolfram Alpha is the newest website on the block. In the past few weeks it has recvieved a ton of hype and ton of criticism. If you have yet to see it you can check it out here: Wolfram Alpha . So what does this mysterious new website do? At first it looks a little like a search engine – and this is exactly what it is being compared to – but it is not, it is in fact a computational device. It works simply, you give it some input – it searches through large stores of data and applies appropriate computations to it to give you the answer you want. The only problem is that most of the time it doesn’t work.Wolfram Alpha Logo

The ideal is good, the idea of being able to find any fact instantly from their “accurate” databases. However the implementation, as has been mentioned by many critics so far is still lacking. Searches are often misunderstood or not understood at all. In addition their “accuracy” is looking like it will have to be compromised due to the huge logistics of such a task. This is not to say it is useless, it is still a powerful tool – but it is basic.

However while wolfram alpha may have some downsides now – I believe many of the critics out there aren’t looking far enough in the future. They compare wolfram to search engines like google and encyclopedia’s like wikipedia. They see Wolfram Alpha as a way for people to find simple information. This it is – but it is the start of a whole new area of the internet – an area which will likely revolutionize the way our world works.

The Beginnings of a DataNet

There is one key and fundamental difference between Wolfram Alpha and what is considered to be its “competition” – that difference is content. Wikipedia is written for humans, by humans. Google, and infact most of the internet to date, shows you webpages – pages made to be read by humans. Pages read by humans are all well and good, but they are not all there is to the internet, and soon we will see the emergence of something more powerful. What Wolfram Alpha does differently to what is currently out there is it uses data – and data are the future.

This is not my idea. I first heard about this idea on TED from a talk by Time Berns-Lee , for those who don’t know him he was the inventor of the ‘World Wide Web’ – an integral part of the internet today and the origin of the “www” in URLs.  The new level of web he talks about in his speech is what is coming – the collection and connection of masses of data. In short, the theory is that in the near future we will soon see more and more data reaching the internet, being used in a datanet, computed and used in meaningful ways. There are a few reasons why this is important and I’ll go through them in brief.

1. Collecting Data

For data to be important we must be able to collect it. In the past this has been a somewhat tedious task – each set of data requires a lot of work to obtain. However now it is not such an issue. Today even shoes have computers in them – and if the trend continues we will likely see everything we own with not only computer, but with wireless connectivity. This means we will be able to get data from millions and millions of points simultaneously – the amount of data will be unreal compared to anything we have seen in the past.

2. Connecting Data

For this data to be useful however it needs to be connected. It needs to be compared and correlated with other data from other sources. This is where the internet and a data-net comes in handy. With streams of more and more data coming together, we need the infrastructure to connect all this and it will come through the natural expansion of the internet.

3. Computing Data

Once we have the data connected it needs to be computed. Data on its own is not useable – it needs to be processed and analyzed. A huge data set with a huge number of connections will require huge computation power – however we are getting there. Computer power has and is still increasing at insane levels. Even if it does slow or stop eventually, we’ve come a long way already. With such processing power, able to be delocalized too thanks to the internet, this data computation can actually be done.

4. Using Data

An Example of Complex Statistic Computation

An Example of Complex Statistic Computation

So I’ve shown that we can now collect lots of data, connect it all together and compute it. So what? What is so special about raw data, why is it at all important? Well to begin with here is an awesome website which aims to show exactly why it is important: Gap Minder . But data goes far beyond uses like that. Data can be used to make decisions, data represent pure information – and computed in complex ways together can give some of the best information to people making decisions about the world and what to do within it. It also works well with research and development groups in that they have the best up to date information at their finger tips and can publish their results back to the world rapidly and in a meaningful way.

Revolutionary?

Revolutionary is a pretty strong word, but I think this has the capability to be just that – revolutionary. The creation of a datanet would re-center the focus of computers back onto computation and with this knowledge will come power. Furthermore it means we will be able to use the internet to begin to regulate things itself. If this continues this way then we may see extrapolation of the current theory of a “conscious internet”. Data represent the inputs the mind of the internet receives and any control they internet may have may eventual become its conscious intent. But even if it isn’t conscious, the effect is largely the same – a huge mind working to solve the problems we face today (from the biggest to the smallest), and able to do so much better than any human can.

A Few Problems

I should mention a few of the possible hurdles this entire system will need to jump to work in the end. One problem is the possibility of false data, vandalism or even cyber-warfare through this sort of thing could be largely detrimental to the system as a whole and methods for monitoring and double-checking data will be essential for accuracy. On that note, the internet is a global community – but we are currently living in a nationalistic world. I have hopes the internet will begin to break down that system, but in the meantime it is important that a datanet is not controlled by or twisted towards bias by superpowers. The other worry some may have is the “skynet” problem, where we give too much power to computational beings who will then “turn on us”. While this is quite a farfetched speculation, for many reasons, it is important to remember that humans DO have important roles to play in the future of the datanet. Humans have amazing neural systems which in many ways can be complimentary to a computers. So while computation may largely be done by computers, areas such as connection of data are better accomplished by humans (a good example is tagging photos, a rudimentary type of data connection already well established).

Back to Alpha

So is Wolfram Alpha the beginning of this revolution? I say it is one of the first signs that it is coming at the least. And I would not rule out the possibility of it expanding into a strong mover towards this direction. It is new in that it works off of data and not “information”. There is a key difference and Wolfram Alpha has realized and implemented this. Its new, its simple and its still in its infancy – but this will be the future and we may look back at Alpha as being one of the first steps in this historic development.


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~ by Myles O'Neill on May 22, 2009.

3 Responses to “Wolfram Alpha – The Beginning of So Much More”

  1. Finished reading it!

    You were right – very interesting. 🙂

    (beats psych anyday)

  2. You forgot to mention that you can type in “Answer to life, the universe, and everything.” and actually get the answer.

    Also, Wolfram makes Mathematica, so I have a strong love/hate relationship with anything bearing that little red shape of death.

    I don’t think it’ll catch on. Stupid Mathematica.

  3. […] Yes, that’s right, I’ve been won over by Wolfram Alpha, previously raved about by a friend prone to raving. It basically tells you answers to things, which is handy in light of the amount of […]

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