Wolfram|Alpha: Searching for Truth
I wondered how Wolfram|Alpha compares to the so-called Semantic Web — an intelligent web project that’s been kicking around for several years now. “The problem with the Semantic Web is that the people who post the content are expected to apply the tags,” remarks Wolfram. “And the tagging system involves a complicated categorization of all the things that might exist—what philosophers call an ontology. Like any comprehensive world-system, the Semantic Web ontology is subject to endless revision, with many gray areas. For instance if there’s a cell phone antenna on a bridge girder, is the structure a bridge or a cell phone tower? It’s proved easier for us to hand-curate the existing data that we find in books and on the web. This is feasible because a lot of the data we’re interested in is purely scientific — things like the chemical formula of some compound. As this kind of data isn’t being constantly revised, it’s possible to stay ahead of the curve.”
I ask him if down the line, Wolfram|Alpha will let users input data and models, along the lines of Wikipedia. He says they will in fact allow that, although via a less open system than Wikipedia. Contributors would need to fill out a form, including some references verifying that their information is correct.
Wolfram and his team are in a high state of tension, gearing up for Wolfram|Alpha’s public release—currently scheduled for May, 2009. The biggest practical issue involves infrastructure. Will they have enough servers to handle the load?
He remarks that his needs aren’t anything like Google’s. “We won’t be continually crawling the web and recomputing our index,” he remarks. “Most of our computational needs center on converting user inputs into Mathematica-like queries, and then computing the answers to these queries. Answering one query might use a hundred of our computers running flat out for a fraction of a second. So we’re still trying to gauge how many computers we’ll need.”
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