Wolfram Alpha is a big deal

After months with little activity in the open analysis area, today brings two major announcements. This post covers the first, and most significant: Wolfram Alpha, from the same company that produces the excellent Mathematica software.

Today Stephen Wolfram presented a preview of the upcoming Alpha product at Harvard’s Berkman Center (archived video to be available shortly). As had been rumored for weeks, the system is impressive. But it isn’t open to the public yet, and a firm launch date has not been announced.

Wolfram refers to Alpha as a “computational knowledge engine”, whatever that means.
Alpha acts like a search engine (you enter some text, and get back a page of results), but instead of finding information located elsewhere on the web, it delivers answers to factual questions. Examples demonstrated by Wolfram included “gdp of france”, “weather in lexington”, and tracking the orbit of the international space station. In all these cases, Alpha returned not only a current value but also time-series historical data presented graphically plus other relevant contextual data.

Alpha brings together a powerful combination of capabilities behind a simple web interface. Alpha gathers data from a large and growing set of external sources (including nearly-live financial and weather feeds); allows human curators to provide the semantic instructions for transforming the source data into a form that can be used by the engine; and uses custom software built on top of Mathematica to respond to queries across the entire repository.

If Alpha is truly as impressive as it looks in the demo, and it can handle the scalability challenge of public availability, then this is a huge advance on the state of online analytical tools. Having a mathematical engine available behind the scenes makes possible a much wider range of inquiry than the search-and-retrieve model provided today by search engines and data visualization services. Alpha’s capabilities won’t be duplicated quickly or easily by competitors.


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