Wolfram Alpha, Google and the Future of Search Engines


Wolfram Alpha, the new "search engine" that you should absolutely check out sometime today if you haven't, has been compared to Google and Wikipedia, or to some hybrid of the two. In short, the engine takes a term, like "vampire bat" or "May 19, 2009," and instantly produces a scientific report with details (like the size and weight of the bat, or today's moon cycle) culled from its extensive internal knowledge base. In other words, it's not a search engine, which produces articles as results. It's a knowledge engine that produces answers with explicit information. It's still a work in progress, but the unveiling is enough to make some question whether it will change the way we search the Internet.

Search engines have long advertised themselves as providing answers, when what they were really doing was providing direction. For example, Ask Jeeves, the first search engine I ever used, originally masqueraded as an e-butler providing answers to your questions, when all it was doing was using your key words to funnel you toward articles it considered relevant.

But Wolfram Alpha really does provide answers. No URLs come back in the results, only a page of often dizzyingly detailed and up-to-date information, like a research report culled by mad scientists with complete access to a universal library. For a telling example, let's compare search results on Google, Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha for the search term "Pluto."

Google gives back a predicted waterfall of articles and pictures about Pluto, including the Wikipedia entry and some images of the planet and the cartoon dog. Wikipedia provides history of its discovery, formation, classification and controversy over its planet status. The Wolfram Alpha return is another thing altogether. It includes details you could find from Wikipedia, such as mass, radius and rotation period. But it also includes its current distance from the Earth and Sun and its current place in the solar system with respect to other orbits. Finally, the engine calculates its current sky position from the location where you just searched it (see below).



The argument that something like Wolfram Alpha will replace Google, or marginalize Wikipedia is bogus, and completely besides the point, because the three engines fulfill entirely different functions. Google is a funnel; Wikipedia is an encyclopedia; Wolfram Alpha is more like a real-time world index.

But just because W.A. doesn't aim to replace Google doesn't mean it won't impact Internet searching. Wolfram Alpha and Wikipedia are more than engines or portals: they're powerful research tools in and of themselves. Enter a math formula, like "x^2 sin(x)" and the engine will plot it and find the root, derivative, local max and min, etc. The question is: Will this make us expect our search engines to be all-knowing genies, not just guides? And when will Google feel compelled to provide its own tool that can similarly curate of the Internet to provide an answer to a search term in addition to (or instead of) a list of suggested links?

Jump to comments
Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Business

Just In