Wolfram's Alpha - hype, hubris or holy grail of computing?

The blogosphere is gearing up for a hypefest over Wolfram Alpha , a so-called computational knowledge engine,...

The blogosphere is gearing up for a hypefest over Wolfram Alpha, a so-called computational knowledge engine, that promises to derive answers to questions about matters of fact.

Whereas Google and other search engines deliver a disc-full of documents that have the same keyword, Alpha, which launches in May, promises to work out the right answer from facts its owners have put into its database.

If Wolfram is right, Alpha could constitute a giant step forward in how people use computers.

Alpha is the brainchild of Stephen Wolfram, a London-born computer scientist who in 1988 developed Mathematica, an all-purpose algorithm-based mathematical modelling tool. He also worked on cellular automata, the neo-Darwinian idea that very simple programs can generate very sophisticated behaviour by following a few simple rules.

Wolfram Research is also involved with theNumb3rs TV programme, currently running on the Five USA channel, where it helps with the mathematical problems that confront the FBI investigators.

Wolfram said on his blog yesterday that he was excited by the imminent launch in May. He wrote that, 50 years ago, people assumed that a computer would be able to handle all kinds of formal technical systems and knowledge, and that one would be able to ask any factual question, and have it compute the answer. "But it did not work out that way," he said.

He said he had found a way to combine the symbolic language processing capability with an understanding of how knowledge arises from earlier, simpler facts in relation to each other. This has become Alpha.

Nova Spivac, the CEO of Radar Networks, was given a demonstration of the system. His subsequent article in Twine was later republished on TechCrunch.

Reaction to the article and the ideas expressed ranged from the welcoming to the hostile, with most saying let's wait and see.

Wolfram wrote, "I am happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic [definition], and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we are actually managing to make it work."

You will be able to see for yourself from May on the Wolfram Alpha website.

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