In the past week, a new answer/search engine, Wolfram|Alpha, was launched. Brought to us from the folks that make Mathematica software, the website declares it is “Making the world’s knowledge computable [in our] ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone. You enter your question or calculation, and Wolfram|Alpha uses its built-in algorithms and growing collection of data to compute the answer.”
In other words, the objective is to be able to produce a “report” of all the world’s digital, computable information with one concise search. At this point, they’ve got a nice working model, but the information in the engine isn’t as good as it will be in the future. For instance, when I put in “Hippopotamus and African Elephant,” I got much more info on the Hippo than the Elephant because it’s a species (silly me). I just love the visual tree created that shows the relationship between the two animals. (Click here to take a peek.)
Will Wolfram|Alpha eventually include encyclopedia-style information? There is some debate on this. Currently, it doesn’t, but this first step is a good one and I’m excited about its potential. As soon as I got the “report” concept of what this engine was trying to do, I had visions of being able to type in a question and having a full report generated – facts, figure, prevailing point of view, dissenting views, bibliographies where I could learn more, etc. This would leave me more time to think about what I was learning. I believe the general public would be excited too. For years I’ve been hearing consumers complain about how hard it is to find things online, how much time they spend looking for information, how results are often not related to what they’re searching for, etc. Information overload…managed.
At the same time, consider the work being done by Erik Hersman and the Ushahidi website, where the content of cell-phone text messages, sent during a crisis (earthquake, terror attack, etc.), are being analyzed for content so that news can be shared with the rest of the world much more quickly. I encourage you to take a few moments and listen to Erik’s speech at TED: click here to listen.
Putting the two ideas of fact and language-based computable data together, it’s easy to see how businesses will be able to use the newer engines to get a quick read on things like customer satisfaction, new product launches, and so on. And it could be done globally or locally. In short, this evolution in our access to knowledge will allow us more time to analyze information and to subsequently develop better plans, ask better, more nuanced, questions, and more. Exciting times!