Wolfram Alpha Pro runs rings around today's search engines
- By Greg Crowe
- Mar 12, 2012
What would we do today without search engines?
Before they existed, the Internet was a trackless expanse that could only be explored by people who knew exactly what website or server they wanted to visit. When the first centralized search engine came along in 1993, it was like a bolt from the blue. You could enter a word or phrase, and the engine would return a list of links to sites related to what you’d entered. As the years went by, search engines have gotten more refined and quite intelligent in predicting which links you want to see.
Of course, this still means that you have to click on each link to see whether the website has the information you are actually need. This extra step (or possibly several steps to look at more than one of the proffered links) often involves an amount of effort disproportionate to the simplicity of the answer you are trying to find.
If all you need is an answer to a question, a classic search engine will usually only be able to tell you where you might find the answer. In science-oriented government offices, however, the answers that are needed aren’t run-of-the-mill, simple ones. Entire tables of data might need specific kinds of analysis, and an ordinary search engine is not up to the task.
Wolfram Alpha Pro isn’t your ordinary search engine. In fact, the company doesn't even call it that; they have named it a “computational knowledge engine.” It will actually analyze your input — perform mathematical calculations, retrieve pertinent facts — and show answers on the topic in as many different ways as it deems pertinent.
Wolfram Alpha Pro
Pros: A lot of different input methods, app and widget makers.
Cons: Doesn’t give a list of links to sites like a classic browser.
Ease of Use: A-
Price: $5 per month, $3 per month for students
Yes, many traditional search engines can now produce an immediate answer to simple things like “how many kilograms in a pound.” However, for complex mathematical equations involving trigonometry or calculus, most engines would be lost.
Case in point: If I type “integrate sin x dx from 0 to pi” into a regular search engine, it will give me a list of links to pages that contain those words. In fact, since that is one of the sample terms Wolfram Alpha uses to show off its product, the first link that showed up on a Google search of that phrase was to Wolfram Alpha.
However, Wolfram Alpha identified it as a definite integral (which defines the area under a curve on a graph), produced the properly written equation (the answer is 2, by the way), followed by a graph of the defined area. It also showed the formulas for other ways to approximate the area in case we needed those.
Wolfram Alpha also returned the same information when we substituted some of the words with their mathematical symbols through its extended keyboard option. When we switched out the word “integrate” with its symbol “∫” Google seemed to ignore it entirely, and gave us a search result based on the remaining words.
And math is just the beginning. When we searched on “F-sharp” in search engines, we were, as you might expect, given a list of URLs to sites that contains the term “f-sharp” with or without the hyphen. Wolfram Alpha shot back with the sheet music notation of F-sharp above middle C, where it was located on a piano keyboard, the notes that are in the F-sharp major and minor scales, its standard frequency in Hertz, and its MIDI note number. It even offered to play the note for us through QuickTime.
This time Wolfram Alpha did make an assumption that we meant the note F-sharp as opposed to something else. When it has several possible assumptions to go on, the very first thing it reports is what assumption it made. In this case it told us it assumed we meant the note, and gave us a link to another results page if we meant the key of F-sharp instead.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are example entries that indicate that Wolfram Alpha is versed in everything from science to sports to literature to census data.
Image search and analysis
If it could only do all that with entered text, then Wolfram Alpha would already be pretty impressive. But it will also accept images and other kinds of files. When we pointed it to a .jpg file, it returned the basic info on it, such as dimensions, file size and aspect ratio. Then it gave us a view of the image with more and less contrast or color levels. Finally, it showed what the image would look like with some of the more common effects were applied, such as grayscale or negative. It even listed the text that it could pick out of the picture.
And that’s not all. We typed in “blur radius 3” after the image in the entry line, and it showed us what the image would look like with a slight blur effect. Pretty much any effect or filter we could think of was there.
Wolfram Alpha is capable of accepting and analyzing more than 80 formats, covering text, image, sound, 3-D modeling, mathematical, and science-based file types. We threw it a basic spreadsheet file, and it reported the data it pulled and graphed it out based on how the data was organized on the spreadsheet.
For the times when you will expect to be entering the same type of request but changing up the terms slightly, Wolfram Alpha has a widget maker. To try this out we typed in the phrase “how many calories in 1 slice of pizza” into the maker, selected the words we wanted to make variables, and then told it how someone would enter different values.
We made the “1” and “pizza” text boxes and “slice” a drop-down menu that had choices like “ounce” and “cup.” After we decided the layout and color scheme, it was ready to use. We could share it on social media or put it on a Web page and then anyone could find out how many calories in “2” “ounce” of “pork chops” or whatever they wanted to type in. There is of course a library of pre-made widgets available so you don’t have to make one from scratch every time.
For searches like the ones made with the above widget — for which the answers aren’t established facts or formulaically derived values — Wolfram Alpha Pro gave averages of the values it found on the subject. Obviously, the better a question is framed, the more accurate the aggregate data is likely to be.
Wolfram Alpha is offering its Wolfram Alpha Pro computational knowledge engine for $5 per month, or $3 per month for students. For the amount of knowledge it’s capable of imparting quickly and easily, this is well worth the cost for people in the scientific field, or anyone who wants another informational tool in their toolbox.
Will Wolfram Alpha Pro replace conventional search engines entirely? It doesn’t take a computational knowledge engine to tell you that there are times where the best way to do research is to have a human being go to websites and sift through material in order to arrive at a conclusion. However, for times when you need an answer or calculation and need it definitively and quickly, Wolfram Alpha Pro is without a doubt the best way to go.
Wolfram Alpha LLC, www.wolframalpha.com