Part of the Personal computing glossary:

Wolfram Alpha is a computational search engine (sometimes referred to as an "answer engine"). The interface looks similar to that of a regular search engine but queries typed into the search box result answers to specific questions rather than listings of websites that may be relevant to the query.

The Wolfram Alpha search box accepts natural language input in keyword, phrase, or sentence format, as well as mathematical equations. The results are dynamically computed. The project website lists the system's components:

  • Linguistic analysis
    New kinds of algorithms for 1000+ domains
  • Curated data
    10+ trillion pieces of data from primary sources with continuous updating
  • Dynamic computation
    50,000+ types of algorithms & equations
  • Computed presentation
    5,000+ types of visual and tabular output.

Here are a few examples -- from a huge number of possibilities -- of categories, queries and results:

Units and Measures -  Includes conversions, calculations, industrial measures, and so on. Under "units," examples include "get information and conversions for a unit," "get unit conversions for a quantity," "convert to a specified unit," "do a calculation with units," and "compare physical quantities and compute dimensionless combinations." Entering "1500 sq. ft primer" into the search box results in "18.7 liters" - the amount of primer required to cover that square footage. The result can be changed to display in gallons rather than liters. Typing in "U.S. women's size 5 shoe" yields a list of the dimensions of that size and its equivalent in other countries.

Physics -  Includes mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, particle physics, quantum physics, and so on. Under "particle physics," examples include "get information about a particle," "specify a particle symbol," "compare several particles," "request a property of a particle," "do a calculation on particle properties," "compute the reduced mass of a system of two particles" and "get information about a particle accelerator." Typing "proton" into the search box yields the particle's mass, electric charge, particle type, quark content, quantum numbers, lifetime, symmetry operations and excitations.

People and History -  Includes people, genealogy, political leaders, historical events, and so on. Under "people," examples include "get information about a person," "compare several people," "find a date or place associated with a person" and "use a birth or death date in a computation." Typing "Charlie Parker" into the search box yields the information that he was a jazz musician, along with his full name, places and dates of birth and death, an image and a timeline.

Wolfram Alpha was developed by Wolfram Research, a maker of mathematical software including Mathematica. The WolframAlpha website describes the ultimate goal of the project:

"We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries."

In this video, Stephen Wolfram, CEO of Wolfram Research, demonstrates and explains Wolfram Alpha:

See also: enterprise search, social search engine, fuzzy search, binary search, voice search, desktop search

Continue reading about Wolfram Alpha:
> The Wolfram Alpha website
> Stephen Wolfram's blog
> Wolfram Alpha fun facts on Twitter

This was last updated in May 2011
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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