Pinterest Stumbleupon Whatsapp
Ads by Google

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.

Ads by Google

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.

9-11

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.

apple1

apple2

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.

functioninfo

functioninfo2

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.

acos

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?’

weather

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’.

shares

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.

  1. uttaradhaka
    November 28, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Kyle, awesome easter eggs man

  2. uttaradhaka
    November 28, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Was just waiting for this article on Wolframalpha.. Awesome stuff man

  3. Chris Heath
    November 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

    typo alert: first sentence you called him 'Conrad Alpha'... isn't his name Conrad Wolfram?

    ps: what's with the ugly ad unit atop your articles? and the two checkboxes for subscribing to comments via email?

    • Simon Slangen
      November 29, 2009 at 8:13 am

      Major typo, thanks for pointing it out :-)

      Do you mean the Google Ads or the subscribing pop-up? The latter one only appears for some of the Google referees.

      • Chris Heath
        November 29, 2009 at 1:47 pm

        No prob about the typo. I mean the google ads. It doesn't seem right that you have the headline, then the dateline, then an ad (big one at that) then the article. The short ad container at the very top (related i guess) is okay, but the three big google ads under the dateline are a bit jarring. all of this is imho, of course. Do what you want, it's your site... i'm just one guy.

        about the checkboxes for comment notification i'm getting two... one under the uri field above the comment box, then one under the add comment button at the very bottom of the reply div or whatever container you're using here. The first says "Subscribe to comments via email" while the second says "Notify me of followup comments via e-mail". I assume that the first means any comment on this page and the second means only for comments in reply to my comment. Still a bit confusing though.

        Great site btw, i've come across it many times in my surfing of the web and rarely has it disappointed.

        • Simon Slangen
          December 8, 2009 at 1:05 pm

          Yeah, I'm not a big fan of those ads myself, but keeping a big site like MakeUseOf in the air isn't cheap. You must keep in mind - these ads (which you can choose to ignore) are our alternative to charging subscription costs.

          We'll be sure to look into the comment notification problem.

        • Chris Heath
          December 8, 2009 at 5:19 pm

          maybe change the background color of the div slightly to clearly mark the advert then? kind of how google will do the top 'sponsored link' ... one css line

          and i totally get your need for ads and support your use of them - just giving a friendly critique of the site design

          i was actually on a site earlier tonight that did the same thing you do (an ad at the top, it's not a very uncommon thing) and almost left a comment, but decided not to ... it's just that the ad isn't part of the content and it makes the page seem a bit off to me... and that's why i think a background color differentiation would solve it... but again, this is just my 2¢

  4. Kyle
    November 27, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    WolframAlpha is awesome, it even has some hidden easter eggs.
    Try asking it:
    Where am I?
    Am i dead?
    How are you?
    who are you?
    How old are you?
    Where do you live?
    are you HAL?
    are you SkyNet?
    what is the meaning of life?
    88 mph

    • Kyle
      November 27, 2009 at 11:46 pm

      I few others I just found:
      Is the cake a lie?
      which came first, the chicken or the egg?
      All your base...
      wtf

    • Simon Slangen
      November 29, 2009 at 8:14 am

      Thanks Kyle, looks awesome!

  5. Kutt Katrea
    November 27, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Where were Wolfram Alpha when I was in College??... u_u

  6. bor
    November 27, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    If WolframAlpha's so smart, how come it's never heard of Betfair?

  7. Chasse
    November 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks for a great article! I never knew all the hidden powers of wolfram alpha!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *