Saturday, May 16, 2009

Unanswered Questions

Mathematica creator and renowned genius Stephen Wolfram has a new project called "Wolfram|Alpha" whose goal is to "make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone." The idea is that instead of searching for somebody else's answers on the web, Wolfram|Alpha will instead compute the answers applying various methods and programs to a very large collection of data. So it's a "computational engine," not a search engine.

Pretty cool idea. I'm glad somebody's doing it. I'm also glad that he plans on continuing to improve it, because so far it hasn't been able to answer any of my questions.

First I saw that it does indeed have info on baseball, so I tried to find out all the people who had been caught stealing twice in one inning. This should be calculable, given enough data on major league baseball. I had heard that it happened to Don Baylor once, but an article I read once cryptically said that it had happened several times since without specifying anything further. So I tried all sorts of combinations of words related to that concept, yet Wolfram|Alpha kept returning a message that it "isn't sure what to do with your input." So I tried the much simpler query "most strikeouts baseball" and a few variants on that, and it was still just as confused. So its baseball database is, for now, quite limited.

So, a totally different question, "Where in the U.S. is mail delivered on Sunday instead of Saturday?" (and many variants on the same), which longtime blog readers may recall has been bugging me since early 2006. About the best Wolfram|Alpha could do is suggest that I might be asking something about the Sunday Mail.

It also can't verify that this Census block group in New York is the most densely-populated in the country.

OK, so I didn't have any hard mathematical questions to ask. Are any of the rest of you able to find answers to questions you have? Remember, part of the whole point of this project is that it's supposed to be for "everybody," not just scientists looking to calculate equations.

MORE (5/20/09): Farhad Manjoo at Slate is similarly disappointed.


At Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 11:49:00 PM PDT, Blogger Richard Mason said...

This is very, very disappointing.

It doesn't even understand "air density at 60,000 feet altitude," which was pretty much my absolute minimum expectation of what it would be able to do.

It does understand "pressure at 60,000 feet." And it does understand "air density at 1 mm Hg."

But it doesn't seem able to combine these things. It does not understand "air density at (pressure at 60,000 feet)."

Needless to say, this is really simple compared to the complex questions one might want to ask.

I'm really disappointed.

At Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 1:45:00 AM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

And that's a scientific query, where you'd expect it to be more capable.


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