“A search engine with a relatively basic PageRank algorithm, bi-chromatic colour scheme, basic layout and a misspelt name? Yeah sure we can beat it; I mean it’s only Google.” The thoughts of many, but despite the attempts of numerous companies (Yahoo, AOL and AskJeeves spring to mind) Google is still the number one search engine by a country mile.
However it is noticeable that as of yet there hasn’t been a significant attempt from us British, but thanks to Stephen Wolfram – winner of the MacArthur genius grant (no, I am not joking!) in 1981 – we may have a serious competitor in the shape of Wolfram Alpha.
As the unimaginative name may suggest it is still in the design stage but the plan is for it to be released soon and, as one ‘expert’ claims: “It could be as important as Google”. Note the use of the word ‘important’ as opposed to ‘popular’- don’t expect this to rise to instant fame and superiority (or even become a verb) but it should be a breakthrough nonetheless.
The real ‘genius’ behind this new search engine is all down to the algorithm that it uses, which hopes to address problems in current search engines by understanding peoples questions and answering them directly.
This will be very different to the PageRank system the Google uses which focuses on the weighted sum of pages linked to a particular web site and combines this with keywords to give you a list of pages that are hopefully relevant to what you typed.
But Wolfram has a very different dream: he aims to use natural language processing to allow the user to communicate with the computer (or rather the search engine) in a more instinctive, and thus more productive, way. Following dreams from 50 years ago he hopes to crack the problem of natural language something that has bugged computer scientists for decades:
“Fifty years ago, when computers were young, people assumed that they’d quickly be able to handle all these kinds of things … and that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question and have it compute the answer, but it didn’t work out that way … I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realised that I was finally in a position to try and do it.”
So, he sounds like he knows what he’s doing, and through the powerful mathematical and scientific engine hopefully we can look forward to seeing a whole new breed of search engines before long: this system will be unveiled in about two months by Wolfram. But despite the fact that it is yet to be released it has already received notable acclaim such as that from Nova Spivack, the founder of another intelligent web service, Twine who said:
“Wolfram Alpha is like plugging into a vast electronic brain… It provides extremely impressive and thorough questions asked in many different ways, and it computes answers – it doesn’t merely look them up in a big database.”
So could we be seeing a real competitor to Google come from British soil? Or more importantly will this new type of searching prove successful? And if it does, could it revolutionise the way in which the internet works? We shall see!
UPDATED: It has now been released! But is Wolfram Alpha useful?
Via – Guardian