I spent a few minutes yesterday talking to Theodore Gray, who along with Dr. Stephen Wolfram, founded Wolfram Research in 1988. The company has made quite a few headlines recently with the launch of their newest project, Wolfram Alpha, a computational knowledge engine.
Before I get into Wolfram's latest news, let me tell you a little about Theo. In addition to co-founding Wolfram Research, he is responsible for the graphical user interface of Mathematica, Wolfram Research's other widely successful software program that is used in universities and companies around the world. In 2002, he was awarded an Ig Nobel prize in Chemistry for his Wooden Periodic Table Table. He also has written a column for Popular Science since 2003 about chemistry and blowing things up, and just last month launched a book called Mad Science - Experiments You Can Do at Home -- But Probably Shouldn't, a collection of his columns.
Theo was very clear that while journalists and users are quick to compare Wolfram Alpha to traditional search engines like Google, Ask Jeeves and Microsoft Live Search, and others suggest is more similar to Wikipedia, in reality it is a completely different type of online tool. As Theo tells me in this interview, "It is not a search engine...it is really quite different."
I did a little "research" myself that probably didn't cause the PowerEdge server powering the Wolfram Alpha supercomputer too much strain.
I entered a simple term that represents something many of you may have pondered: what is the weight of a gallon of milk? Having been raised on a dairy farm in Northern Illinois, I always knew that the weight of a gallon of milk was approximately eight-and-a-half pounds. I entered "weight of gallon of milk" into Wolfram Alpha and it generated a data table that showed it weighed nine pounds (must be rounded up), but also unit conversions, serving density and volume.
On Google I found this result, Ask Jeeves gave me this and Microsoft Live Search gave me this -- all search results that were generated when the search engines went out to the World Wide Web, looked for meta-data and keywords that would suggest a page had something to do with the weight of a gallon of milk. So you'll see links to all sorts of websites that propose to answer that question or discuss it in some way.
Wolfram Alpha, on the other hand, actually taps into a number of data pools and produces data that are related to the words entered into the text box. So, the server infrastructure required to power the Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine is significant as it is actually crunching numbers, data, to deliver to the user an answer to their query.
Have a listen.