18 May 2009

Mixed Review for Wolfram Alpha

The new Wolfram Alpha search engine has the potential to be an excellent tool for journalists -- but it's years away from becoming a game-changer, Paul Bradshaw writes.

Bradshaw highlights the "computational knowledge engine's" ability to search parts of the "hidden web" that most search engines don’t reach, such as databases, as well as its potential to provide quick answers to questions about relationships and facts better than Google.

However, at the moment, natural language questions work best if you're looking for very specific information about something well-known. For instance, Wolfram can tell you what year Charles Dickens was born, but it can’t turn that around to tell you what writers were born in that year, he said.

Particularly useful, Bradshaw adds, is the ability to compare things - "for example, The Guardian vs The Telegraph, or London, Birmingham and Manchester." It also is good at calculations of various sorts, from converting fuel use to fuel costs to figuring out the calories in your lunch.

Overall, he says, the tool can be a time saver, but there are drawbacks. For instance, while Google lets you intuitively evaluate the credibility of a source, it's unclear where the information provided by Wolfram is coming from or how accurate it is.

Bradshaw concludes that "Wolfram is an engine waiting for the world to catch up. The technology is enormously impressive - really, game-changingly important. But the material it has to work with is, currently, sparse."

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