In the year 1978, film director, musician and author of stories for children, Satyajit Ray wrote a short story named “Compu”. Scientists had invented the ultimate computer that could answer any human question. The I/O metaphor was voice and the twist in the story came when “Compu” – the ultimate computer – started getting a mind of its own and behaved like a human being. Twenty one years later we can – with the benefit of hindsight – say that this is like putting Wikipedia into a voice enabled computer with semantic web understanding thrown in, but the story was quite ahead of its time for 1978.
The quest for understanding human queries and having a computer responding back has kept the scientific fraternity busy. However, as content in the web proliferated, the obvious solution to this problem was to let the web answer the question rather than creating an engine. This led up to search engines and focus shifted to making search results more and more relevant (with of course an eye on the ad revenue pie). The trouble with search is that it points to a source rather than answering the question directly. While that is perhaps a smarter strategy, it is less fun.
So in this cauldroun appears Wolfram|Alpha, the quantitative knowledge engine from Stephen Wolfram. All it does is “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone”. It is much less smarter in handling non-computable stuff because it has a bravado (bordering on hubris) that makes it do its own stuff – not fetch results from the internet to read. So it is much more fun (it is also secretly sponging up all those questions it cannot answer today – like “how many bags of wool did ba ba black sheep have” and is figuring out answers to it as you read this). Walpha (affectionate nickname) puts forth an entirely different way of unearthing knowledge – so long as it has to do with computation. I would be keen to see if it throws up alternative monetization models, deviating away from the traditional advertisement based ones.
PS: People are discovering interesting aspects of the engine displaying strong character and a funny bone (“Compu”?). It has a taste for good music too as I found out