I got the opportunity a couple days ago to get a demo of Wolfram Alpha from Stephen Wolfram himself. It’s an impressive thing, and I can sympathize a bit with them on the overblown publicity. Wolfram said that they didn’t expect the press reaction, which I both empathize with and cast a raised eyebrow at.
There’s no difference, as you know, between an arbitrarily advanced technology and a rigged demo. And of course anyone whose spent a lot of time trying to create something grand is going to give you the good demo. It’s hard to know what the difference is between a rigged demo and a good one.
Alpha has had to suffer through not only its creator’s overblown assessments, but reviews from neophiles whose minds are so open that their occipital lobes face forward.
My short assessment is that it is the anti-Wikipedia and makes a huge splat on the fine line between clever and stupid, extending equally far in both directions. What they’ve done is create something very much like the computerized idiot savant. As much as that might sound like criticism, it isn’t. Alpha is very, very, very cool. Jaw-droppingly cool. And it is also incredibly cringe-worthily dumb. Let me give some examples.
Stephen gave us a lot of things that it can compute and the way it can infer answers. You can type “gdp france / germany” and it will give you plots of that. A query like “who was the president of brazil in 1930″ will get you the right answer and a smear of the surrounding Presidents of Brazil as well.
It also has lovely deductions it makes. It geolocates your IP address and so if you ask it something involving “cups” it will infer from your location whether that should be American cups or English cups and give you a quick little link to change the preference on that. Very, very, clever.
It will also use your location to make other nice deductions. Stephen asked it a question about the population of Springfield, and since he is in Massachusetts, it inferred that Springfield, and there’s a little pop-up with a long list of other Springfields, as well. It’s very, very clever.
That list, however, got me the first glimpse of the stupid. I scanned the list of Springfields and realized something. Nowhere in that list appeared the Springfield of The Simpsons. Yeah, it’s fictional, and yeah that’s in many ways a relief, but dammit, it’s supposed to be a computational engine that can compute any fact that can be computed. While that Springfield is fictional, its population is a fact.
The group of us getting the demo got tired of Stephen’s enthusiastic typing in this query and that query. Many of them are very cool but boring. Comparing stock prices, market caps, changes in portfolio whatevers is something that a zillion financial web sites can do. We wanted more. We wanted our queries.
My query, which I didn’t ask because I thought it would be disruptive, is this: Which weighs more, a pound of gold or a pound of feathers? When I get to drive, that will be the first thing I ask.
The answer, in case you don’t know this famous question is a pound of feathers. Amusingly, Google gets it on the first link. Wolfram emphasizes that Alpha computes and is smart as opposed to Google just dumbly searching and collating.
I also didn’t really need to ask because one of the other people asked Alpha to plot swine flu in the the US, and it came up with — nil. It knows nothing about swine flu. Stephen helpfully suggested, “I can show you colon cancer instead” and did.
And there it is, the line between clever and stupid, and being on both sides of it. Alpha can’t tell you about swine flu because the data it works on is “curated,” meaning they have experts vet it. I approve. I’m a Wikipedia-sneerer, and I like an anti-mob system. However, having experts curate the data means that there’s nothing about the Springfield that pops to most people’s minds (because it’s pop culture) nor anything about swine flu. We asked Stephen about sources, and specifically about Wikipedia. He said that they use Wikipedia for some sorts of folk knowledge, like knowing that The Big Apple is a synonym for New York City but not for many things other than that.
Alpha is not a Google-killer. It is not ever going to compute anything that can be computed. It’s a humorless idiot savant that has an impressive database (presently some ten terabytes, according to the Wolfram folks), and its Mathematica-on-steroids engine gives a lot of wows.
On the other hand, as one of the people in my demo pointed out, there’s not anything beyond a spew of facts. Another of our queries was “17/hr” and Alpha told us what that is in terms of weekly, monthly, yearly salary. It did not tell us the sort of jobs that pay 17 per hour, which would be useful not only to people who need a job, but to socioeconomic researchers. It could tell us that, and very well might rather soon. But it doesn’t.
Alpha is an impressive tool that I can hardly wait to use (supposedly it goes on line perhaps this week). It’s something that will be a useful tool for many people and fills a much-needed niche. We need an anti-Wikipedia that has only curated facts. We need a computational engine that uses deductions and heuristics.
But we also need web resources that know about a fictional Springfield, and resources that can show you maps of the swine flu.
We also need tech reviewers who have critical faculties. Alpha is not a Google-killer. It’s also not likely as useful as Google. The gushing, open-brained reviews do us and Alpha a disservice by uncritically watching the rigged demo and refusing to ask about its limits. Alpha may straddle the line between clever and stupid, but the present reviewers all stand proudly on stupid.