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wolframalphaEarlier this week, I heard Conrad Wolfram speak at the TEDxBrussels convention. The man, a big force in the popular mathematics company, argued that computational aid at school should not be considered cheating.

Computational aid, like Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha.

In fact, declining these readily available tools is cheating. This discussion will lead to a rethinking of education. Does one need to know how to build a car to drive it? What, in fact, are we learning?

Although I will save this discussion for the comments, Wolfram’s demonstration of Wolfram Alpha was an eye-opener. Like a lot of you, I’ve read and played with this ‘computational knowledge engine’ before. Like most, I didn’t know half what it was capable of.

In this article, I will try to shed some light on the three most important aspects that make up the Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine. If, at the end of this article, you have added Wolfram Alpha to your search arsenal (as I recently did), I will know I have succeeded.

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Data Aggregation

In most articles I’ve read, the biggest focus lies on Wolfram Alpha’s ‘intuitively accessible’ knowledge database. In words easier to swallow, this means that you can easily pull up relevant facts on a subject, instead of having to browse through several pages worth of related information. This is very well demonstrated in Guy McDowell’s preceding article: Wolfram Alpha – A Step Closer to Star Trek’s Computer Wolfram Alpha - A Step Closer to Star Trek's Computer Wolfram Alpha - A Step Closer to Star Trek's Computer Read More .

On the site, type in any name, date, city or company, and a fact list should pop up. For instance, after entering a specific date, Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine shows the time difference for today, the day’s position in our current year, observances for the date (including major and minor holidays), events on the 23th of March (including anniversaries and obituaries) and even the phase of the moon.

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Entering a company name will summon a different flood of information. You will see the obvious information, like financial information and their recent returns, but also a lot of rather unexpected numbers and data visualization, like different models of stock projection.

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This intuitive database that Wolfram Alpha gives us is of course incredibly important – but it is not all there is to it.

Mathematical Superpowers

Indeed. Wolfram Alpha has mathematical superpowers. And why should it surprise us? After all, Wolfram Research is dedicated to the development of mathematical computing. Like with Google, Wolfram Alpha solves simple mathematical equations. One plus one equals two, that kind of thing. However, Wolfram Alpha goes a little further than Google with its calculations.

Entering ‘x^2 sin(x/2)/(x-3)’, otherwise said formula, will plot the function on a few different scales, show alternate forms, the roots, series expansion at x=0, at x=∞, the indefinite integral, series representations, and so on. Want to know how to derive that function? Hit the button for a step-by-step explanation.

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Even when asking for the taylor series of the squared inverse cosine function, ‘series of acos(x)^2’, Wolfram Alpha fails to disappoint us. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry. Just be aware that it’s awesome – and it isn’t even the limit.

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You already guessed it. Wolfram Alpha’s mathematic abilities make it the perfect homework tool.

Combining Data

So Wolfram Alpha is a master in data aggregation. It’s also a math superhero. But what makes Wolfram Alpha really incredibly is the third aspect; its a knowledge engine that can make connections. This is a skill that we try to teach humans. Taking one piece of information and relating it to another. Combine this with a database of facts and mathematical prowess, and you’ve got Wolfram Alpha.

So what are the implications of this?

For instance, type in ‘what was the weather on the day Steve Jobs was born?’. Wolfram Alpha first looks for Steve Jobs’ birthdate, then connects this to its weather records. You can make it more specific if you want; ‘what was the weather in Belgium the day Steve Jobs was born?’

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Want to take those mathematical skills into account as well? To give an example, we asked Wolfram Alpha (ordered, really) to ‘compare Apple and Microsoft’ (see screenshot below). Or, if you want to puny yourself, ask to ‘compare MakeUseOf.com and eBay.com’.

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With these three skills combined, there’s only one limitation; your own imagination. Wolfram Alpha shows us the future of search engines. And we’re now one step closer to a computer taking over the world.

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