Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society set the stage Tuesday for a demonstration of what may one day be the world’s most powerful and most used search engines, far surpassing the current capacities of Google. Introduced by Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95, a dean of internet law, British mathematician, physicist, and researcher Stephen Wolfram previewed his latest project, the search engine Wolfram|Alpha. Wolfram|Alpha uses Wolfram’s Mathematica platform to allow users unprecedented aggregation of data via a single search. A query for “Lexington Moscow”, for example, presented, among other data, a temperature comparison for Lexington, Massachusetts, and the Russian capital.
The conventional take on the new search engine is that is can “actually answer human questions,” but the demonstration showed its capabilities did not actually reach that far. While it could call up an impressive amount of data in a single search string, it faced problems ferreting out words that humans use to make their questions grammatically correct. Wolfram explained that his search engine was not necessarily a failure in this respect – it simply boiled down questions to the fundamentals of language.
Wolfram, who is head of Wolfram Research, headquartered in Champaign, Illinois’ “Silicon Prairie”, plans to roll out his search engine for use by the general public as early as next month. There is speculation that it may emerge as a significant competitor to Google. In the midst of Wolfram’s presentation, in fact, Google announced a new tool designed to more easily access census data. It appears meant to be used along the same lines as Wolfram|Alpha, but has much more limited capabilities.