Wolfram Alpha, a new computational search engine, launched last night. Instead of merely searching a corpus of information to present possible answers based on keywords (what Google does), Wolfram Alpha actually uses computers to attempt to answer your questions by trying to understand the question, interpret it, and give back helpful results.
I decided to do a few (most likely very unfair) tests. First, I tried the all-important ego search:
This constantly repeated, somewhat metaphysical question, of course, confused WolframAlpha’s huge brain. In fact, when I searched for it again, I received a message saying:
Sorry, Wolfram Alpha is temporarily unavailable. Please try again.
Error: DataPacletFilter: Unable to get Connection Too many connections
Note: the emphasis on the Alpha in this error message is their emphasis, not something that I myself added. Pretty amusing if you ask me.
Next, I searched for the answer to another metaphysical question: “What is the meaning of life?” and received this very odd error message that differs greatly from the frowning faced sun with the Wolfram Alpha emphasis above:
Again, amusing, but a little scary, too, with undertones of a robot that will malfunction and kill us all in some odd mix of pop-cultural references somewhere between Terminator and 2001.
Then, I tried a variation of the last question, asking “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?” and to my surprise, I received an answer:
Super geek points for this amusing answer, which is the same answer that is presented to us in Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything. However, as you can see, Wolfram Alpha just presents us with the number 42 with little indication of how / why it came to that conclusion, relying on us to be familiar with Life, the Universe and Everything and leaving anyone who isn’t familiar with the book—much like the actual characters in the book itself—with no additional information besides a simple number. Sure, they source the information with a light-grayed out text, but I missed seeing that the first time, and so will 99% of users. It’s poorly designed and presented.
This is the huge failure at this moment of Wolfram Alpha. Sure, I could be accused of being hyper-critical here. Most people who type in this question are undoubtedly fans of Douglas Adams’ work and therefore expect this very answer, so perhaps to call this answer without context a failure is unfair. Fair enough.
The next example underscores how lack of context about how an answer is arrived upon is indeed the failure point of Wolfram Alpha. I searched for a mathematical equation, which is much more within the scope of Wolfram Alpha’s capabilities than any of the other questions I asked so far: 0/0 =
Wolfram Alpha returned the correct answer “indeterminate.” I would have also have accepted “undefined.” However, this is a huge failure on this computational search engine’s part, because it doesn’t bother to explain why it is indeterminate, the mathematical equations used to arrive at defining it as indeterminate, nor the rich history of proofs surrounding this simple equation. A person who already knew the answer and knew all this information would not be searching for this equation. The person searching for this equation would be a math student eager to understand and learn.
Google, on the other hand, when faced with the same search, returns helpful answers with lots of context and allows me the ability to explore and learn more. It also doesn’t return errors, underscore its Alpha-ness, or attempt to be amusing or humorous when it can instead, with context, be helpful.