Wolfram Alpha

  1. Have people been reading about Wolfram Alpha? I'm not sure how I feel about knowledge engines really, so I'm really curious to see it at the launch, but I was wondering what other peoples thoughts were of the project. Most online reports on it make it sound pretty magical, and don't address any of the standard objections that AI people raise to actually creating a knowledge engine, as it appears to be... but I am still intrigued.

    Thoughts?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Astronuc

    Staff: Mentor

    Interesting. I'll be watching for it.

    If Wolfram hasn't released details, how do people make any credible reports.
     
  4. I honestly don't know. All Wolfram seems to have made is some grandiose claims about how he's managed to implement his New Kind of Science using Mathematica, but without explaining at all how he was successful in doing so.

    But it's definitely something exciting to watch out for. A viable knowledge engine would be a pretty impressive achievement in AI.
     
  5. mgb_phys

    mgb_phys 8,952
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

  6. For those of us who have been using Mathematica's built-in data sources since the summer of 2007, we have had some time to grow used to Wolfram's futuristic concept that it is possible to integrate hundreds of gigabytes of data into a general computational system, and do it in a clean organized way. I am continually surprised that almost nobody noticed or cared, but Mathematica 6.0 was the biggest step towards producing a general scientific database that was seamlessly accessible inside of a graphical and computational tool.

    The new thing about Wolfram|Alpha is that it will allow more people to use this technology that has been in Mathematica since 2007 by processing their natural language commands with sophisticated algorithms!

    I have no idea if the natural language thing will work out, and for me it does not matter. I am already in computation/data heaven with Mathematica 7. The benefit I derive from Wolfram|Alpha is the increase in the size of the curated database that is accessible for limitlessly customizable computation from within Mathematica.
     
  7. It's going to by turned on today on the 15th of may,

    http://www.wolframalpha.com/


    This is amazing. If it works, ask reasonably anything you like and it will give you an answer.
     
  8. RonL

    RonL 907
    Gold Member

    Looks great:approve: I think the challange will be how to best ask a question.

    The star trek computer is almost here:biggrin:
     
  9. I'm interested in just how much of the system is handcoded in and how much is generated on-the-fly from a database of information. If there is very little handcoded things then it looks like a promising project.
     
  10. Looks like the developers are Douglas fans but show no love for Asimov
     
  11. RonL

    RonL 907
    Gold Member

    I would think it will grow as people increase the input of questions and data.

    My first request brought up the screen "I can't do that Dave":confused:
     
  12. Well, it did like "I, Robot"--cause it's a movie
     
  13. Wolfram Alpha is my new home page. It used to be Google.
     
  14. Am I just missing something?

    I asked: "How do you solve a second order differential equation?"

    It said "I don't know what to do with that input."

    I fail to see how this doesn't satisfy the contract that "You enter your question or calculation".

    When I tried "What is an eigenvalue?", it gives me a bunch of unrelated calculation options for linear algebra... it doesn't say a word about what an eigenvalue is. Not impressed so far.

    With my expectations lowering, I try "what is a cat?". Besides the page taking several minutes to load, for whatever reason, and the graphics not coming up correctly, it does seem to have at least recognized that I'm talking about the animal, and gave me some very basic information about what a cat is (kindom, genus, species, etc.) I could have expected more information, but there you go.

    The results from typing "sin(e^x)" were better... much more information, good information (I guess), but not complete information, either. A graph would have been nice, and it seems like it should have been easy enough to figure out. *NOTE: funny, on some other functions it does (try to) produce good plots.

    I gave it f(n)=2*f(floor(n/2))+n, f(0)=1, and it didn't tell me anything about the recurrence at all.

    So... I'm summarily unimpressed as of yet, although I applaud the idea. It'll need time to iron out the kinks. It is not the promise of the semantic web.
     
  15. I don't expect it to know everything, but it's very elegant, and the results are ready in pdf as well.

    I asked it

    "population of USA / area of USA"

    it not only gave me the answer, but showed a graph of the ratio from 1970 to present.


    "what's the temperature in New York City from 2000 to 2006"

    nice graph
     
  16. Giving it a specific differential equation, like y'' + x^2 y = 0, produces the general solution as well as time series and phase space plots for typical initial conditions.

    If you want to know the definition of 'eigenvalue' type "definition eigenvalue."

    The very first tip they give is: Wolfram Alpha answers specific questions rather than explaining general topics.

    Try asking about "eigenvalues {{a,b},{b,a}}" and I am pretty happy with the results: just as with my differential equation the results were even cleaner and faster than with Mathematica (but of course with less control).

    As far as I know this is the first free web-service that will 'show the steps' that a human student will take for derivatives, or students in school algebra can type "expand (1 + a b + b^2)^2" and see the steps as well.

    The funny thing about post-modern cynics is that they will complain about anything if they perceive it as 'hyped.' Nevermind the fact that Wolfram is many years ahead of any potential competitor (evidence: Mathematica 6 has had integrated knowledge database abilities since summer 2007, and if you know of any other software package that compares and you are an expert user of both, i.e. I don't care about learning curves, then please tell me about your superior or even somewhat comparable package).
     
  17. "I don't expect it to know everything"

    I would hardly call being able to provide basic answers to questions like "what is a cat" and "what is an eigenvalue" the same as "knowing everything".

    It felt brittle to me... I feel like the hype was too strong. I almost hoped this would be the sort of thing you can go ask a question *that you aren't even sure how to word*, and it would have a conversation with you to decide what you need to know.

    No idea:
    why did the soviet union collapse?
    who won the 30 years war?
    why are plants green?
    How many eggs are in a gross?
    Which side of the street do you drive on in England?
    If mammals are animals, and cats are mammals, are cats animals?
    Who made Wolfram Alpha?
    What is object oriented programming?
    What is the mean age of human beings?
    What is the apeiron?
    Are there security holes in OpenOffice?

    Some information (ranging from good to very, very basic):
    who was the twelfth president?
    what is a semaphore?
    why is the sky blue?
    What is Wolfram Alpha?
    How many weeks are there in a year?
    Who was Anaximander?

    Until (a) more knowledge is put into his engine or (b) the AI gets better, I'm going to keep using Wikipedia if I need to find out anything online. Sort of a let down.
     
  18. "Giving it a specific differential equation, like y'' + x^2 y = 0, produces the general solution as well as time series and phase space plots for typical initial conditions."
    Which is all well and good, but that may not be what I want to know.

    "If you want to know the definition of 'eigenvalue' type "definition eigenvalue.""
    The computational knowledge engine should be able to understand simple English... or else I fail to see how it is any different from a regular web search.

    "The very first tip they give is: Wolfram Alpha answers specific questions rather than explaining general topics."
    It's very easy to have an excellent product, if you get to define what excellent means. That is a false dichotomy between general and specific questions... how general? how specific? Who decides what counts as what? Any general-purpose computational knowledge engine shouldn't have hang-ups like this. It's silly.

    "Try asking about "eigenvalues {{a,b},{b,a}}" and I am pretty happy with the results: just as with my differential equation the results were even cleaner and faster than with Mathematica (but of course with less control)."
    Then this isn't anything more than a glorified calculator, is that what you're saying? Perhaps I had the wrong expectations. I thought this would answer any reasonable question on any topic.

    "The funny thing about post-modern cynics is that they will complain about anything if they perceive it as 'hyped.' Nevermind the fact that Wolfram is many years ahead of any potential competitor (evidence: Mathematica 6 has had integrated knowledge database abilities since summer 2007, and if you know of any other software package that compares and you are an expert user of both, i.e. I don't care about learning curves, then please tell me about your superior or even somewhat comparable package)."
    I'm just pointing out the very obvious fact that this system has severe limitations for anything except for relatively well-defined computational problems. I was expecting a system which was much more interactive and intelligent than this. Like I said, maybe there will be more releases, more data, or revised AI.

    Maybe my expectations were wrong. Still, "computational knowledge engine" is misleading. It should read "online calculator" if that's what it's purpose is.
     
  19. "The computational knowledge engine should be able to understand simple English... or else I fail to see how it is any different from a regular web search."

    It has a vast amount of built-in curated data and it computes answers in real time, while web search only allows you to access answers that other humans have already computed and published (sure google can do arithmetic, but that is as far as it can go in terms of real-time computation). Its partial ability to parse natural language syntax has nothing to do with my interest in the system. It's all about connecting the worlds largest top-down organized, curated database to the worlds most sophisticated general computational engine and to connect them in such a way that is sufficienly organized and integrated that (some) humans can actually use it.


    "Then this isn't anything more than a glorified calculator, is that what you're saying?"

    Nope, I was just showing that in addition to other computations it can do inolving factual data, it can also do more real-time symbolic mathematical calculations than any handheld calculator in the world. For free, accessible from any browser!

    "I thought this would answer any reasonable question on any topic."

    If that's the case then it's hard to imagine not being disappointed. But if you look carefully at the technology, you will see that W|A has more potential to live up to your expectations than any other product that is publically known. If you look at the progress of Mathematica development over the last 20 years, it is literally exponential. IMO the biggest reason for this exponential growth is the unparalleled level of organization: most software products become rapidly bloated as they expand, but Wolfram's genius was to design a system with so much long-term organization that it becomes faster and better as it expands, always building on itself (not rewriting from scratch as e.g. Microsoft has done many times in the last 20 years with its office products).

    If you want to be disappointed by what W|A can't do, that's fine, but I look at all the things it can do that nothing else can, and I look at the fact that rather than bursting at the seams it is in fact primed for rapid improvement.

    By the way, what was google like on the day it launched?
     
  20. WA is very very disappointing. It understands very little. So much so, that I expect google will have no trouble doing way better. The product was released too early.
     
  21. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought as much.

    Its functionality is very limited, and I see this manifesting itself in two areas:

    (1) The AI isn't very good at recognizing what information is relevant to the question being asked. It's little more than a command-line interface.

    (2) The data in the system seems limited in scope and incomplete in content.

    The first can be fixed by:

    (1) Investing more time in the language recognition algorithms. There should be no fundamental difference between the strings "what is an eigenvalue" and "definition eigenvalue". These mean the same thing.

    (2) Organizing data better to allow for better semantic searching. If I ask "why are plants green", it should be able to see "plant" and "green" and the absence of the word "chlorophyl" and, together with the "why", at least mention that it's the chlorophyl that makes plants green. Etc.

    The second can be fixed by adding more information to the system. It's misleading to say you speak English if you know 15 nounds and it's misleading to say you have a computational knowledge engine if it knows about the twelfth pesident of the US but not why the Soviet Union collapsed.
     
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