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After personal-computer technology took off in the 1980s, visions of artificial intelligence danced in pop culture's head.
Some brat in his bedroom pranked NORAD into War Games. The gamer reality of Tron booted up, while Hackers, Sneakers and other digital archetypes fought for advantage in The Matrix.
In the so-called real world, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google fought for primacy in the search game, where smart and dull surfers punched questions into their computers and waited for a response. Until now, the computer has only been able to communicate back using links, text, videos and ads.
But with the recent unveiling of Wolfram/Alpha, a computational knowledge engine powered up by physics, math and computer genius Stephen Wolfram, that communication and computational evolution has just accelerated. However, slowly.
"Our rather ambitious goal is to compute everything that is computable," explains Eric Weisstein, senior researcher in the Scientific Information Group at Wolfram Research, the company behind Wolfram/Alpha as well as Stephen Wolfram's groundbreaking computational software Mathematica. "We're only at the very beginning of the process, and we have ambitious plans for data, computation, linguistics, presentation and more."
Simply put, the query field on Wolfram/Alpha mashes input through its complex algorithms and heuristics and replies not with a set of links, like Google or Yahoo's search engines, but rather with stats, graphs and analysis.
Punch in "Lennon Lenin" and you'll get a breakdown of each cultural icon's age, place of birth and other comparative knowledge. Punch in "Microsoft" and "Google," and you'll get the current prices, financials, fundamentals, projections and more for both stocks. Get tougher and try to solve the integration Sin[(a-b) x]/2+Sin[(a+b) x]/2n, and you'll get enough math to give you a headache -- and an "A" on your homework.
In fact, if you ask Wolfram/Alpha the meaning of life, it will give you the only answer yet achieved: 42, from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
But one thing Wolfram/Alpha will not give you is the type of general information the majority of the world expects when it asks its computer something. Punch in "Star Trek," and you get the crew and cast of J.J. Abrams latest film, and nothing else.
"As a search engine, it's weak," argues CNET's technology reporter Matt Asay. "But it's pretty interesting as a way to compute datacentric relationships between two things. Perhaps its biggest inhibitor is that it requires very different inputs from Google to be useful. You can't just 'search.' You have to have some idea of how to construct an inquiry."
In other words, it's for nerds.
"Wolfram/Alpha is not a search engine, and its functionality and goals should not be confused with traditional search engines," cautions Weisstein. "Search engines can only find information if it explicitly exists on a Web page somewhere on the Internet. Wolfram/Alpha can provide answers to infinite classes of questions based in its collection of facts and computational knowledge without them having to be written down somewhere. So it can answer many questions and perform computations that a search engine would have no chance to do."
This discrepancy between what the public currently does on the Internet and what it still can learn to do is damping down some of the unrestrained hype that accompanied the computational engine's debut in May.
"A new paradigm for using computers and the Web? Probably," Convergenceofeverything.com's Tom Simpson was quoted in The Independent's brazenly titled article "An Invention That Could Change the Internet Forever." "Emerging artificial intelligence and a step towards a self-organizing Internet? Possibly."
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.