Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha: not too impressive.

By now many of you have run across Wolfram|Alpha, billed by its creator as a "computational knowledge engine". I've been goofing around with it a little over the past two days, and I'm not too impressed, though there are some cute things in there. The demonstration video, narrated by Wolfram himself, is very slick, and gives you the impression that Wolfram|Alpha can take even minimalistic requests (e.g., "Germany US GDP") and provide lots of computed output (US and German GDPs side by side as a function of time, in various different currency units and normalizations, for example). That is sort of true, for a very limited subset of queries. As one might expect from the people who developed Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha can also do some symbolic math, including graphing of functions.

Unfortunately, it would appear that their model is to have these kinds of limited queries templated by hand on their side. Trying to ask well-defined questions about comparatively simple things ("What is the resistance of a wire?"), which you might expect from the demo to call up a pretty set of dialog boxes, etc., instead gives you "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." In this particular example, just "resistance of a wire" calls up dialog boxes about US and UK wire gauges and is at least somewhat useful. For a parser to do fine with "resistance of a wire" and gag on "what is the resistance of a wire" is pretty sad these days.

Bottom line: the idea of Wolfram|Alpha is cute, but right now it's entirely too much like playing an old text adventure game:
You are facing a brown, wooden door set in a dark green frame. There is a doorbell button here.

>Ring the doorbell.

I do not know how to do that.

>ring doorbell

I do not know how to do that.

>push button

You push the button, and from within the house you hear a distant chime.


Anonymous said...

It's a free web-based Mathematica which is the most impressive aspect about it. It works on my iPhone quite well.

It understands Mathematica syntax and many functions, for example


I might as well throw away my calculator now.

thm said...

At least today, May 20th, if you type "Ampere's Law" into Wolfram Alpha it presumes you're interested in comparing the cities of Ampere, Panama and Law, United Kingdom (it would be an 11.5 hour flight).

"Newton's Laws" and it thinks you want to compare the surnames "Newton" and "Laws."

"Boyle's Law" gives you the sort of thing you'd expect.

I have a feeling that finding amusing responses to Wolfram Alpha will be a joke sort of like the amusing handwriting interpretations that the Apple Newton came up with, way back when.

Uncle Al said...

Alpha suffers for lacking parsing, e.g., Google's double quotes enclosure. Alpha does well on quantitative questions but bombs on qualitative ones.

Give it time for revision. It has a definite niche after refinement. If you have read Wolfram's book you know that his singular failure is not retaining a good editor.

Karrasko said...

I haven't tested Wolfram Alpha yet, but I must say that I was excited about it. I'm a regular user of Mathematica (Great program I must say). Now after reading these comments and the post, I'm going to wait until Alpha runs correctly. Thanks to all for the comments.

Zach said...

It is dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.


George Chriss said...

I was impressed by the attitude that search engines can and should do more than just link to relevant pages.

Wolfram|Alpha a pretty neat calculation tool, but an open-ended text search box is misleading in the sense that non-quantified queries will not yield useful results when it appears that it should or will.

A guide on how to best structure queries would be helpful. For example, I wasn't quite aware that Wolfram|Alpha would process Mathematica input. Are there other languages that it handles?