Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wolfram Alpha

It seems to be still in beta, but Wolfram Alpha is a hugely promising web-search tool that will complement Google and Wikipedia. It’s based on sorted, verified data, and will never tell you what Britney is up to or what the current hot starlet looks like naked, but it will give you graphs and charts of, you know, facts. So it’s maybe of more interest to journalists and writers/researchers than ordinary Web users, but maybe not. As the New York Times reports:
For starters, it does not gather data from the Web. Instead, its “knowledge base” is made up of reams and reams of data — ranging from the kinds of facts you would find in a World Almanac, to highly specialized data from physics and other sciences — that some 100 employees at Wolfram Research have gathered, verified and organized over several years.

When a user types in a query, WolframAlpha tries to determine the relevant area of knowledge and find the answers, often by performing calculations on its data. If you type “LDL 120,” it will return a graph showing the distribution of cholesterol levels among the United States population, and display the percentage of people above and below that figure. If you type “LDL 120 male 33,” it will adjust the results to focus on that gender and age group.

In response to “how far is the Moon from Earth,” WolframAlpha will calculate the exact distance based on an algorithm that computes the ever-changing distance between the two bodies.
There are some screenshots here that give a preview of what will become available. Call me kinky, but those charts and graphs are dead sexy. I’ll be using it a lot. It will be great for any queries based on statistics whether weather, housing, unemployment, crime, you name it. Here, for example, is what it gives (click the image to see a larger version) in answer to the query “internet users in Europe”:

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