Stephen Wolfram reveals radical new formula for web search

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The home page is almost empty. In the center, just below a colored logo, you’ll find an empty data field. Type a phrase, hit Return and the knowledge appears.

No, it’s not Google. This is Wolfram | Alpha, named after its creator, Stephen Wolfram, a 49-year-old former particle physics prodigy who has been mesmerized by the potential of computers. He invented powerful computer software (Mathematica), built a business around it (Wolfram Research), and wrote a huge book (A new kind of science) which claims to redefine the universe itself in terms of computation.

So when Wolfram asked me, “Do you want an overview of my most ambitious and complex project to date?” he got me to “Do”.

The fruit of four years of development, Alpha is a driver of responses. Its ambition is to explore “all the knowledge in the world”, says Wolfram, to find and calculate information. If the interface of Alpha evokes Google – whose co-founder Sergey Brin spent a summer internship at Wolfram – it is rather anti-Google.

Type a query for a statistic, a country or company profile, the average speed of a sparrow – and instead of a series of results that may or may not provide the answer you’re looking for, you get a mini dossier on the subject compiled in real time which ideally nails down exactly what you want to know. It’s like having a team of Cambridge mathematicians and CIA analysts in your browser.

Type “Pluto” and Alpha calculates the distance from the dwarf planet to Earth at that exact moment. Write a series of letters like “ACTCGTC” and Alpha recognizes it as the genetic code and tells you which strand of DNA this particular gene lives on and what we know about it. Wolfram authorized – or created a whole library of databases and massed them to make the information flexible. (To date, they include Wikipedia, the U.S. Census, and “about nine-tenths of what you would see on the main shelves of a reference library,” he says.) Combined with Mathematica’s near-magical abilities, Alpha is a powerful calculation engine that can effortlessly answer queries that no one has yet put to a search engine.

Consider a question like “How many Nobel Laureates are born under a full moon?” Google would only find the answer if someone had first scoured the entire list, matched each winner’s birthplace with a lunar phase chart, and published the results. Wolfram says his engine would have no problem doing it on the fly. “Alpha makes it easy for the typical person to respond to anything quantitatively,” he says.

Wolfram needs some push before he talks about the business model. “Plan A is to get this out,” he says. “Maybe it will be a giant piece of philanthropy.” On the other hand, he adds, “we are happy to grant this license.” He thinks Alpha would be welcome in apps, on mobile devices, and in a generalized search engine. Wolfram has shown former intern Brin Alpha before and thinks it might make sense to run the engine behind the scenes of Google searches.

Another possible source of income: license databases. In putting the information together for Alpha, Wolfram has often been disappointed with the quality of the source material, and he plans to build hundreds of new databases in areas ranging from nutrition to tide tables.

This is just the first step in the project, says Wolfram, moving on to the “crazy stuff”. Uh, like what? “We will actually be able to simulate in real time based on descriptions. The next question is: can we invent things on the fly, create things that have never been created before, in real time? “

This company is so pissed off that even the hyperbolically confident Wolfram covers up a bit. “There are a lot of things that could go wrong,” he says. Indeed, a few weeks before its planned launch, the product is still rudimentary, lacking both integrated natural language processing and sufficient data to deliver the Information Singularity that Wolfram envisions. But once Alpha tells you how many Nobel Laureates were born under a full moon, you’ll know we’ve come a step up on the evolutionary ladder of knowledge.

Photo: Physicist Stephen Wolfram poses in his home office. Associated press / Michael Dwyer

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