Wolfram’s Folly?

Back in the 80s, I read Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel Friday, where the main character did an amazing trick with a computer. She discovered a correlation between a number of seemingly unrelated factors and the incidence of the plague – information that allows her to avoid the next plague outbreak. I thought it would be pretty cool when computers reached the point that this sort of thing could be done.

I suspect Heinlein and Stephen Wolfram had a similar idea. Wolfram has just launched a web site called Wolfram Alpha that provides a way for non-sci-fi-characters to discover strange and interesting facts. It is sort of a cross between a cloud-based version of Mathematica and the CIA World Factbook. You can ask what is “2+2” or the “Population of Australia / New Zealand”. They state they have “10+ trillion pieces of data” in their database already.

But the most interesting thing about it for me is that it can answer questions that have never been asked before. Unlike Wikipedia or Google, which offer up information that people have already written down somewhere, Wolfram Alpha computes answers from its data. For example, I asked it for the “next solar eclipse in Melbourne” and got back the answer Friday, July 13, 2018 (along with a heap of other information and charts). Such information is not easily obtainable from Google.

However, while it is clear how ambitious and innovative this project is, it’s not clear to me when people would typically use it. Why would someone use it to, say, find weather information rather than going to a weather website, or movie details rather than going to a movie website. Given that Wolfram Alpha has to gather and “curate” the data in their database, specialist websites are likely to have an advantage in timeliness or breadth of their data. This is indicated in a TechCrunch article that shows they are sometimes using 2006 statistical data when 2009 data is available.

Even if ordinary people won’t regularly use it, perhaps it could get used for specialist projects or assignments. However, another issue is the black box nature of Wolfram Alpha. While Wikipedia considers itself a “tertiary source” and Google is more of a catalogue than a source, Wolfram Alpha may be the only source of a particular piece of information, given that it computed it. So, how would this data be referenced? Can it be considered a trusted source? Will specialist projects or assignments be able to use it if it isn’t? And if it can’t be used by them, then by who?

Given that Wolfram Alpha is so cool, I hope it doesn’t prove to be a folly. I enjoyed reading Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, which he ended up provided online for free as a bit of a philanthropic service. I really wonder if that could be possible for this new project.