British scientist takes on Google with Wolfram Alpha

London-born scientist Steven Wolfram is to launch his very own advanced search engine dubbed Wolfram Alpha, which will let users ask a computer a fact-based question and have it work out the answer.

That's the promise physicist Wolfram is making with Wolfram Alpha, which will launch in just two months. "A lot of [information] is now on the web in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text," he wrote on his website.

"But we can't compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can't figure anything new out."

Using two systems he'd already created Mathematica and NKS he hopes to change that, and not just using previously suggested methods such as semantically tagging things, a method proposed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web.

Instead, Wolfram suggests another way, analysing data and running it through algorithms. "All one needs to be able to do is to take questions people ask in natural language, and represent them in a precise form that fits into the computations one can do," he said.

The system has been displayed to web pioneer Nova Spivack, who said "it may be as important for the web (and the world) as Google, but for a different purpose."

"It doesn't simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn't just a giant database of knowledge, like the Wikipedia. It doesn't simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents, like Powerset, for example," Spivack wrote in his blog, explaining that Wolfram Alpha actually answers questions.

"It's a very powerful calculator that doesn't just work for math problems - it works for many other kinds of questions that have unambiguous (computable) answers."

While Spivack described it as an electronic brain that is smarter than Google, he promised: "There is no risk of Wolfram Alpha becoming too smart, or taking over the world. It's good at answering factual questions; it's a computing machine, a tool - not a mind."

Saying it's a difficult task that will never be truly finished, Wolfram has said the first bit is set to go live in May.

A holder page is already live, and looks like a basic search engine. Indeed, to users, the system will appear as a basic input field, giving access to "trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms."

We'll have to wait two months to see if Wolfram can follow up on his claims, which even the clearly ambitious scientist said were difficult to believe. "I wasn't at all sure it was going to work," Wolfram admitted.

"But I'm happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we're actually managing to make it work."