May 122009

Based on his previous groundbreaking successes in the fields of computational science and mathematics, my expectations are high for Wolfram|Alpha, a new venture by Stephen “Mathematica” Wolfram, also author of 2002’s soaring 1280-page book entitled A New Kind of Science. Mr. Wolfram’s blog entry states:

It’s going to be a website: With one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms.

Wolfram|Alpha is billed as a web-based “Computational Knowledge Engine”, and is built upon the knowledgebase and foundational principles established with Mathematica and A New Kind of Science (referred to by Mr. Wolfram and his team as project NKS). It is planned for release to the general public on May 18. It’s in private, limited release now; I’ve been fortunate to be a part of this beta testing community.

For those readers in scientific, engineering, mathematics, and/or academic computing communities, the work of Stephen Wolfram and his company, Wolfram Research, is likely already well known. Mathematica, first released over 20 years ago (now in version 7.0) is the most advanced technical computational software program in use today, encompassing mathematics, engineering, and offering a broad range of scientific calculation and visualization methods. NKS, as described by Mr. Wolfram, is an ongoing, long-term project (not simply a sweeping hardcover book, as I first encountered it nearly 5 years ago). In NKS, Wolfram explores primitive rule-based programs, such as cellular automata and fractal generators, demonstrating how immense complexity can arise through the simplest of these programs, and effectively relates that complexity to observations in the natural world.

If you are already familiar with Wolfram’s Mathematica or have browsed the voluminous NKS (I’ve never met anyone who’s actually been able to read the entire book cover to cover!), you will immediately see Wolfram|Alpha as a broadening, and an extension, of these advanced constructs and capabilities. But they’re now easier to digest for public consumption, free via the Internet.

After seeing Wolfram|Alpha in action over the last few weeks, I will go as far as suggesting that this project could very well evolve to democratize computational analysis (in much the same way that Google Earth has democratized geospatial analysis), by extending publicly available data and known algorithms to anyone, anywhere, anytime, with a web browser and Internet connection.

Is Wolfram|Alpha a “Google-killer” as some have suggested? I think not, especially in its present form. But one does wonder how far a paradigm of “curated data” might scale, and how both Wolfram and Google will necessarily, at some point in the future, begin to fully exploit and leverage W3C constructs (including RDF linked data and OWL-based ontologies), forming the distributed Internet Digital Grey Matter (IDGM) and growing to form the Semantic Web.

I’ll have more tomorrow on my test-drive of Wolfram|Alpha.


Mitchell Ummel

Mitchell Ummel is Director of Cutter's Government & Public Sector practice and a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Business & Enterprise Architecture practice.


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