Hands on with Wolfram Alpha

I’v been interested in Wolfram Alpha ever since I heard about it and I’ve been itching to play with it since I saw Stephen Wolfram’s online demo. A few days ago I got an invitation to try out a preview of Alpha. In between studying for exams and taking care of laundry, I’ve been trying Alpha a little bit at a time to see if it’s lived up to my previous enthusiasm.

The answer is yes and no. Let’s put it this way: Alpha claims to be a computational knowledge engine and that’s exactly what that is. My first query was “earth’s radius”. I have no idea why I chose that, but the answers were as I would have expected. I got the answer in terms of miles, kilometers, meters and nautical miles. More interestingly I got the answer in terms of multiples of Venus and the moon’s radius. Good start.

So after that I tried “Star Trek” (since I just saw the new movie and loved it). I got information about the release date, producer and writers. I also got a very detailed cast listing. There were also recommendations which give similar information for the other Star Trek movies. However I was rather surprised that there wasn’t any information regarding any of the series.

From the web demo I knew that Alpha could do mathematical problems. So I typed in a few calculation problems and as in the demo I got the solution, plots of the solutions as well as a step-by-step description of how the solution was computed. Very useful for college calculus students. I was interested in seeing if Alpha could tell me how to do integration in general, not just for a particular problem. If I just type in “integration” Alpha seems to think that I want to an integration and then gives me examples of the integration problems that it can do. In this case Alpha considers it to be a general topic. But if I tell it to interpret it as a normal word, then it gives me definitions, synonyms as well as how it’s used in language (as a noun or verb). But nothing on how to do integration.

Going back to the yes/no question, the answer is “yes” because it is a computation system that can answer specific questions by actually calculating the answers in a way that Google simple can’t. However it doesn’t give answers to broader, more general questions. The integration example is one. There are also gaps in Alpha’s knowledge base. Entering “halting problem” gives no answer, but Alpha does know that it is a topic in computability theory. But given that this is a preview and that Alpha will probably always be a work in progress, gaps in the knowledge base will be filled gradually over time.

I’ve done some more experimentation over the past few days, but there is still a lot of work to do. Typing in sulfuric acid or it’s chemical formula gives information about the chemical, but saying something like “molarity of sulfuric acid” or even “sulfuric acid molarity” confuses Alpha completely. Alpha definitely show promise, but I’m certainly not giving up my Google or Wikipedia.


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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

2 thoughts on “Hands on with Wolfram Alpha”

  1. I typed in ‘england’; Wolf thinks that England and the United Kingdom are the same *shakes head in dispair*; ‘scotland’ apparently ceased to exist in 1707 – perhaps legally, but the same would be true for ‘england’;’wales’ apparently is town in ‘england’. On checking I discovered it is… but WHERE’S WALES the country gone? Grrr

  2. Having lived in the United kingdom (mostly England and Scotland) for a good few years, I can understand your pain. It’s reasons like this why I’ll still stick to Google and Wikipedia for the most part. I’ve always believed that search engines and public wikis should be the first place to go if you’re looking for something, but definitely not the last.

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