Playing with Wolfram Alpha

2009-05-18

in Geek stuff, Internet matters

Ottawa street lights

Wolfram Alpha is based on a rather neat idea: making a website that can actually deal with information in an intelligent way, rather than simply search for words of things in existing pages. Put in ‘1 kg gold‘ and it will tell you that it would form a sphere 2.313cm in diameter, a cube 3.73cm to a side, and cost US$32,520. Put in ‘running 10 km/h 60 minutes 6’0″ 185lbs age 25 male‘ and it will estimate the number of calories expended. It doesn’t know about cycling yet, unfortunately. It doesn’t seem to be able to do calculations on greenhouse gas emissions yet, either, though it will tell you that mixtures of air and methane in which the methane is between 5% and 15% of the total will explode if exposed to a temperature of 595˚C. It also knows that Apple has 35,100 employees and a current P/E ratio of 23.1. It can search for base pair sequences within the human genome.

The biggest limitation of the site is phrasing things in a way it interprets properly. Indeed, most of the searches I try produce only the message: “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.” For the time being, Wolfram Alpha is less of an open-ended vehicle for computations and data access, and more a set of discretely made tools for existing tasks. If you know which tools exist and how to format input for them, it works well. If you are trying to get it to do something its designers didn’t anticipate, it probably won’t work.

In short, Wolfram Alpha is a fun thing for statistics nerds to play around with, and could be genuinely useful for research. The best way to appreciate its current capabilities is to watch this introductory screencast.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

. May 18, 2009 at 3:31 pm

WolframAlpha Doesn’t Know You and It Doesn’t Care

05.18.09

Stephen Wolfram’s new search engine is nothing like Google and Wikipedia, and for good reason.

You don’t know me, WolframAlpha. Oh, and you’ll never be another Google. This is not a problem for you, I assume, because that was never your intent in the first place. As I see it, you’re the difference between searching for something “like” what you want and searching for something very, very specific and not being worried about the potentially related things you might miss. Put another way, say you wanted to dive for a quarter that somehow floated down to the bottom of a cavernous pool. If you dove on your own, it’s unlikely you’d ever reach the quarter. However, with WolframAlpha as your guide, you dive fast and rise up with a shiny coin in your hand—it may even be the exact one you were looking for.

Milan May 18, 2009 at 3:36 pm

I suggested they add data and computations on greenhouse gas emissions.

Milan May 18, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Another neat piece of information:

It would take 24.7 milliseconds for light to travel from Oxford to Ottawa, through a straight fibre optic cable linking the two places.

Milan May 18, 2009 at 4:12 pm

More fun queries:

How many roads must a man walk down?

It takes 8390 kJ to cool and liquify 1kg of hydrogen. 1kg of hydrogen has an energy density of about 120 MJ. Liquifying hydrogen thus requires about 7% of the energy it contains – a smaller figure than I expected.

Wolfram Alpha factors big numbers: 9853053 is 3x7x469193

The base pair string ‘ACGGTCTG‘ occurs 884 times in chromosome 1.

I have been alive 9303 days.

Half a litre of kidney beans contains 33% of your daily recommended protein.

In the last few years, the per-capita GDP of Canada seems to be more correlated with those of the UK and Sweden than that of the US.

The maximum upstream and downstream bitrates of an 802.11n network are 600 Mb/s.

Lots of information on n-grams in phrases

The MD5 hash of ‘sindark.com’ is ‘6e8f 1b6b 2e51 6b68 8f34 1dd6 f20f 3ced.’ The SHA-1 hash is ‘7d43 54e1 2ae3 5743 66ef 69ce 8240 fcc6 79cd e299.’

The density of walnut wood is 0.56 g/cm^3.

Halley’s comet is 32.07 AU from Earth. Voyager 1 is 109 AU away.

R.K. May 18, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Cocaine is 67.3% carbon.

This site is very US-centric. Put in ‘sales tax ontario’ and the only options that come up are different US cities.

. May 18, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Wolfram ‘search engine’ goes live

A web tool hailed as a significant rival to search giant Google has gone live to the public.

Wolfram Alpha is called a computation knowledge engine rather than a search engine and wants to change the way people use online data.

It aims to give people direct answers to queries rather than send them to other sites where they may find what they are seeking.

Milan May 18, 2009 at 9:30 pm
Milan May 18, 2009 at 10:19 pm

The data they have on the brain is creepy.

Density, ‘shear modulus,’ electrical resistivity, radiation stopping power…

. May 19, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Like Google, Only Much, Much Worse
Wolfram Alpha is yet another pretender to the search giant’s throne.

By Farhad Manjoo
Posted Monday, May 18, 2009, at 5:48 PM ET

Wolfram Alpha, the latest alleged Google killer, is not a search engine. Rather, physicist and software entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram’s long-awaited new Web project is a “computational knowledge engine.” The difference is important. A search engine tells you where to find stuff on the Web. Type “box office goodfellas” into Google, and you get a list of links; it’s up to you to figure out which page to click on to find how much money the Scorsese film made in theaters. Wolfram Alpha, which launched over the weekend, tries to give you a direct answer—ask it the same question, and you get the result without having to look on any other site: $46.84 million. The site’s best trick is its sometime ability to make calculations on the fly. Type in “box office goodfellas + box office casino” and it’ll tell you that the movies made a combined $89.35 million. Think of it as a calculator attached to a reference library—or your own personal HAL 9000.

If only it worked. Wolfram Alpha is a neat concept, and some of the posted sample queries—you can calculate the payment table for a mortgage or how many calories a 40-year-old male who’s 5-foot-10 and weighs 160 pounds would burn if he ran at 4 miles per hour for 30 minutes (272)—are quite impressive-looking. But in my few days of using it, I’ve found Wolfram Alpha almost completely useless.

Sure, the engine can tell you the musical notation for D# minor and the life expectancy for a 65-year-old woman in Sweden. But there is so much more that Wolfram Alpha doesn’t know. Once you start conjuring your own searches, it’s clear that the samples offer a misleading impression of the site’s depth. Ask how many calories that male runner would burn if he were swimming, cycling, playing tennis, cross-country skiing, or golfing—it’s clueless. Say you wanted to know how life expectancy differed by state in the United States—what’s the life expectancy of a male in California, and how does that compare to the life expectancy of a male in Kansas? “Wolfram Alpha doesn’t know what to do with your input,” the site tells me. And on and on it goes. Wolfram Alpha doesn’t know the homicide rate in South Africa or Baltimore, it doesn’t know how many copies M.I.A.’s last album sold, it can’t tell you the per-capita GDP of the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s got nothing about the top speed of the Bugatti Veyron.

. June 12, 2009 at 7:56 pm

UnitConversion.org is quite the resource to easily convert between different units of measurement. It has over 2100 units in 78 categories, which range from those that are common, such as, length, weight, volume, currency, velocity, and pressure, to more specialized categories like magnetic flux density, electrostatic capacitance, and surface tension.

. June 12, 2009 at 9:31 pm

Wolfram Alpha Rekindles Campus Math Tool Debate

An anonymous reader sends in a story about how Wolfram Alpha is becoming the latest tool students are using to help with their schoolwork, and why some professors are worried it will interfere with the learning process. Quoting: “The goal of WolframAlpha is to bring high-level mathematics to the masses, by letting users type in problems in plain English and delivering instant results. As a result, some professors say the service poses tough questions for their classroom policies. ‘I think this is going to reignite a math war,’ said Maria H. Andersen, a mathematics instructor at Muskegon Community College, referring to past debates over the role of graphing calculators in math education. ‘Given that there are still pockets of instructors and departments in the US where graphing calculators are still not allowed, some instructors will likely react with resistance (i.e. we still don’t change anything) or possibly even with the charge that using WA is cheating.'”

Milan September 11, 2009 at 9:57 am

In some ways, my verdict on Wolfram Alpha is revealed by how I haven’t used it since the initial novelty wore off, while I use Google dozens of times a day.

. November 12, 2009 at 8:21 am

Wolfram Alpha given keys to the Bingdom

Microsoft gets mathematical on Google’s ass

By Kelly Fiveash

Microsoft has inked a deal with Wolfram Alpha, making its Bing search engine a high-profile customer of the egghead web product’s API.

Financial details of the agreement were kept secret. Wolfram Alpha, which went live in May this year, recently confirmed that code junkies could now slot the computational knowledge engine into their apps – at a price.

The company lifted the lid on its API last month, allowing developers to query the Wolfram Alpha system and run its data and calculations in tandem.

“Starting today, Wolfram Alpha’s knowledge, computed from expertly curated data, will enrich Bing’s results in select areas across nutrition, health, and advanced mathematics,” wrote the firm’s Schoeller Porter in a blog post yesterday.

“Wolfram Alpha provides immediate, unbiased, and individualised information, making it distinctly different from what has traditionally been found through web search. By using Wolfram Alpha, Bing recognises the complementary benefits of bringing computational knowledge to the forefront of the search experience.”

Microsoft has so far only begun adding Wolfram Alpha’s to its Bing search engine for users in the US. It didn’t say whether the rest of the world might expect to see it rolled out soon.

. December 3, 2009 at 10:58 am

Step-by-Step Math
December 1, 2009

Have you ever given up working on a math problem because you couldn’t figure out the next step? Wolfram|Alpha can guide you step by step through the process of solving many mathematical problems, from solving a simple quadratic equation to taking the integral of a complex function.

Milan December 3, 2009 at 11:02 am

More prime factors:

21 = 3 x 7
321 = 3 x 107
4321 = 29 x 149
54321 = 3 x 19 x 953
654321 = 3 x 218107
7654321 = 19 x 402859
87654321 = 3 x 3 x 1997 x 4877
987654321 = 3 x 3 x 17 x 17 x 379721

Milan January 24, 2011 at 9:54 pm

If you put your age, sex, weight, and height into WolframAlpha, it will estimate some neat things about you:

* body mass index
* ideal body weight (lbs)
* fat mass (lbs)
* lean body mass (lbs)
* body surface area (3070 sq. inches)
* percentile by weight
* percentile by age (I am older than 22% of the population)

* total water (L)
* whole blood (L)
* blood plasma (L)

* lung capacity
* heart volume

Milan May 30, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Wolfram Alpha has added some climate change data.

. July 3, 2011 at 10:37 am

His most recent venture is Wolfram Alpha, a website launched in 2009 that he describes as a “knowledge engine that computes answers to questions”. Type in “GDP of France versus Britain”, for example, and it produces recent figures and a chart comparing the two countries’ GDP from 1961-2010. Enter “country with largest population density” and it returns a list, topped by Macau. But type in “best Radiohead album” and it produces gibberish. It is easy to see why comparisons with Google are unfair; rather than trying to organise the world’s knowledge, Dr Wolfram wants to make it “computable”.

“Search engines are like a blender,” he says. “They put all this stuff into one algorithm and deliver a list of links. That’s great when it works but it isn’t going to work for a lot of the stuff that we care about. Our objective is that pretty much anything you need to go ask a human expert about right now, will be able to be answered automatically.” Doing this is, he says, “insanely difficult”.

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