The biggest internet revolution for a generation will be unveiled this month with the launch of software that will understand questions and give specific, tailored answers in a way that the web has never managed before.
The new system, Wolfram Alpha, showcased at Harvard University in the US last week, takes the first step towards what many consider to be the internet's Holy Grail — a global store of information that understands and responds to ordinary language in the same way a person does.
Although the system is still new, it has already produced massive interest and excitement among technology pundits and internet watchers.
Computer experts believe the new search engine will be an evolutionary leap in the development of the internet. Nova Spivack, an internet and computer expert, said that Wolfram Alpha could prove just as important as Google. “It is really impressive and significant,” he wrote. “In fact it may be as important for the web (and the world) as Google, but for a different purpose.”
Tom Simpson, of the blog Convergenceofeverything.com, said: “What are the wider implications exactly? A new paradigm for using computers and the web? Probably. Emerging artificial intelligence and a step towards a self-organising internet? Possibly... I think this could be big.”
Wolfram Alpha will not only give a straight answer to questions such as “how high is Mount Everest?”, but it will also produce a neat page of related information — all properly sourced — such as geographical location and nearby towns, and other mountains, complete with graphs and charts.
The real innovation, however, is in its ability to work things out “on the fly”, according to its British |inventor, Dr Stephen Wolfram. If you ask it to compare the height of Mount Everest to the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, it can. Or ask what the weather was like in London on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated, it will provide the answer.
Type in “10 flips for four heads” and it will guess that you need to know the probability of coin-tossing. If you want to know when the next solar eclipse over Chicago is, or the exact current location of the International Space Station, it can work it out. Dr Wolfram, an award-winning physicist who is based in America, added that the information is “curated”, meaning it is assessed first by experts.
This means that the weaknesses of sites such as Wikipedia, where doubts are cast on the information because anyone can contribute, are taken out.
“I've wanted to make the knowledge we've accumulated in our civilisation computable,” he said. “I was not sure it was possible. I'm a little surprised it worked so well.” Dr Wolfram (49) added that the launch of Wolfram Alpha would be just the beginning of the project.
“We are just at the beginning. I think we've got a reasonable start on 90% of the shelves in a typical reference library,” he said.