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?

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

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