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A Look At the Wolfram Alpha "Search Engine"

kdawson posted more than 4 years ago | from the computational-knowledge-engine dept.

The Internet 216

An anonymous reader points out a ReadWriteWeb piece on an hour-long demo of Wolfram|Alpha (which we discussed at its announcement). Stephen Wolfram does not like to call it a "search engine," preferring instead the term "computational knowledge engine." It will open to the public in May. "The hype around Wolfram|Alpha, the next 'Google killer' from the makers of Mathematica, has been building over the last few weeks. Today, we were lucky enough to attend a one-hour web demo with Stephen Wolfram, and from what we've seen, it definitely looks like it can live up to the hype — though, because it is so different from traditional search engines, it will definitely not be a 'Google killer.' According to Stephen Wolfram, the goal of Alpha is to give everyone access to expert knowledge and the data that a specialist would be able to compute from this information."

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216 comments

Google started the ball rolling... (3, Insightful)

ThePromenader (878501) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726757)

...with their web-crawling keyword-sculling technology, but it's only normal that someone else was researching what to ~do~ with all the data. IE (data analysis for human comprehension) and Google would make one fierce - and useful - blend.

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (0, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27726783)

oh internet explorer and google make a fierce blend alright, but not that useful...

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27726847)

oh internet explorer and google make a fierce blend alright, but not that useful...

Just like niggers. FIerce with their thug homie-G culture, but not that useful...

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (0, Offtopic)

rubjo (1243036) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726975)

Might I suggest, dear Anonymous Coward, some serious reeducation?

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (0, Redundant)

Schemat1c (464768) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727039)

Feed the trolls not.

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727091)

Like Yoda you talk. Too much Star Wars have you watched.

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (5, Insightful)

stephanruby (542433) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727073)

This blog post reads more like a marketing piece written by a shill, and if there is any hype, it just seems like it's just self-delusion or just wishful thinking at this point.

Any search engine query and corresponding results can be manually optimized and tweaked to quasi-perfection. In fact, that's the exact recipe many of the now defunct search engines were using a while ago. They would optimize the hell out of a couple of queries or use case scenarios, and then they would fall in love with the layout and content of their contrived results. And then, when the users didn't use the search engine the way the developers wanted them to use it, the developers tried changing the behaviors of their users instead of trying to change their search engine. For the most recent example of this, of actually one company that still had money to waste a year ago, think back to the ask.com commercial where they tried to teach us about the *cool* ajax feature of previewing web sites. Not that this feature was bad per say, but if it was any good, or groundbreaking in any usable way, users would be telling each other about it -- they wouldn't need to be educated about it -- at such a large expense.

And the same goes for the tone of this blog post was written in. It was written from the perspective of a shill, or from the perspective of the company itself, but not from the perspective of an actual user. Personally, I don't want to know about the supposed hype or marketing-speak from the developer's own mouth, I just want to know how useful it's going to be for me. And I don't want contrived examples, I want one or two random example from the (supposedly independent) blogger himself (if possible). And I don't want an actual screenshot of the search box, I want the actual search box itself. Am I only one who tried clicking on it? And if you're going to give me the screenshot of something, give me the screenshot of the search results page (at the very least) and not just a verbal description of it.

Which brings me to my last point: Show. Don't tell. And if there is one thing that Google does well, it's that they don't try to prematurely hype their nascent lab products. They release them first, then they see if the users fall in love with their creation (or not), which is rather a hit-or-miss proposition and a long iterative process. So don't tell me about a fancy search engine, if it's not even out for a public trial yet. I want to try it. I don't want to be told about it.

The NSA also know what to do with the data (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727155)

If you think that Google haven't thought about what they could 'do' with the data then you haven't read the articles in which the adverts in which Google advertises for technicians with security clearance were described.

Sometimes it doesn't benefit a company to let you know what it is 'doing' with the data.

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (-1, Offtopic)

khallow (566160) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727239)

If by "IE", you mean "Internet Explorer", then I don't see your point. Internet Explorer is merely a way to present web pages. Google has duplicated the essential features of IE with Chrome. They've also duplicated the other Microsoft products like their OS, database, and the Office suite. Microsoft really doesn't have much else to bring to the table.

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727509)

i.e.
abbr. Latin
id est (that is)

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (4, Insightful)

Jurily (900488) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727245)

IE (data analysis for human comprehension) and Google would make one fierce - and useful - blend.

Finding relevant information other than the Wikipedia page for any specialist topic is a pain in the ass. If these guys can find a way to index only the good stuff, i.e. not based on general popularity but content accuracy, they could have a future.

Do I have to remind everyone how annoying it is to search for technical documentation for something vaguely Linux-related, only to find the first 30 hits are various forums with more or less clueless newbies discussing installation difficulties and the syntax of apt-get?

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (5, Funny)

feepness (543479) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727555)

Do I have to remind everyone how annoying it is to search for technical documentation for something vaguely Linux-related, only to find the first 30 hits are various forums with more or less clueless newbies discussing installation difficulties and the syntax of apt-get?

Gods yes. And not to mention that 80% of them are from 2006 or earlier.

Re:Google started the ball rolling... (0, Offtopic)

srussia (884021) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727267)

"IE (data analysis for human comprehension) and Google would make one fierce - and useful - blend"

Perhaps, but the question is: Will it blend?

athe real question... (5, Funny)

mcrbids (148650) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726771)

What role will cellular automata play in this, and will this also define the basic nature of universal mechanics?

Re:athe real question... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27726989)

What are you, a nerd?

The real question about this "Google killer", is how will it improve my porn?

For instance, will it be able to correctly find "all images related to a girl forced to drink thru a direct tube into her mouth the piss of another girl, with the piss harvested by use of naked-forced-tickling into a tube attached to her vagina?"

Optionally, I shall settle for "all images of lesbian girls in a group of 5 or more, with no makeup, and at least 1 licking the asshole of another".

If yes, then we have a Google killer.

(yes, I was looking around 4chan, can you tell?)

Re:athe real question... (1)

nashv (1479253) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727067)

You mean :
If neighbourhood {
M>5 then F=Strip;
elseif
M5 then F=Strip;asslick(rand(F));
}

Re:athe real question... (3, Informative)

balloonhead (589759) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727485)

You do realise women don't piss out their vagina? There is more than one hole. Think bowling ball.

Re:athe real question... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727553)

I have cloacal exstrophy, you insensitive clod!

Re:athe real question... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727805)

Think bowling ball.

Classy!

Re:athe real question... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727835)

Oh my God. I've been thinking six-pack. Am I missing one?

Re:athe real question... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727075)

Wait for a month and ask this to Wolfram

Re:athe real question... (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727151)

Restate my assumptions: One, Mathematics is the language of nature. Two, Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three: If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature. Evidence: The cycling of disease epidemics;the wax and wane of caribou populations; sun spot cycles; the rise and fall of the Nile. So, what about the stock market? The universe of numbers that represents the global economy. Millions of hands at work, billions of minds. A vast network, screaming with life. An organism. A natural organism. My hypothesis: Within the stock market, there is a pattern as well... Right in front of me... hiding behind the numbers. Always has been.

9:13, Personal note: When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six, I did. The doctors didn't know if my eyes would ever heal. I was terrified, alone in that darkness. Slowly daylight crept in through the bandages, and I could see, but something else had changed inside of me. That day I had my first headache.

I wouldn't hold my breath (4, Insightful)

speedtux (1307149) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726787)

It took Mathematica many years to become even marginally correct and useful. If Alpha proceeds at the same pace, it won't have any impact at all.

My god, it's full of... (3, Insightful)

NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726789)

FTFA:

...according to Stephen Wolfram, Alpha is built on top of 5 million lines of Mathematica code which currently run on top of about 10,000 CPUs (though Wolfram is actively expanding its server farm in preparation for the public launch).

5 *million* lines of Mathematica? How many code monkeys does he have working for him?

Re:My god, it's full of... (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27726849)

Don't laugh, but this is one of the questions that Wolfram|Alpha will be able to answer easily. May 2009.

Re:My god, it's full of... (4, Funny)

NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727081)

I knew I should have looked this up before clicking submit: this makes Wolfram Alpha 1.25 million times more complicated than the entire universe, which Wolfram expects to be expressible in 4 lines [umich.edu] of Mathematica [metafilter.com] .

Re:My god, it's full of... (1)

LordLucless (582312) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727519)

If the entire universe can be expressed in 4 lines of Mathematica, and assuming Wolfram|Alpha is actually a part of the universe, that's some serious bloat.

Re:My god, it's full of... (2, Insightful)

wvmarle (1070040) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727145)

And 10,000 CPUs and expanding for the public launch... who is going to pay for all that? It's not that Google has a few more of those CPUs running now, but when Google went public I'm quite sure it was less. They just expanded with the expansion of their market.

Maybe this is the late 90s again (prepare for totally unrealistic user numbers), or this search engine indeed needs so much horse power, meaning in effect that it can never become profitable.

Also the article talks about queries running a few seconds, instead of a typical 0.2 seconds for a Google search. That already indicates 5-50 times the computational resources just to get the answer on a query, and thus much higher cost per query than Google et. al have.

Re:My god, it's full of... (3, Interesting)

timeOday (582209) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727195)

It's not that Google has a few more of those CPUs running now, but when Google went public I'm quite sure it was less.

Yeah [flickr.com] , I'd say that's less than 10,000 CPUs.

That said, the later you try to crash the party, the more mature competition you are facing, and the bigger/better the launch has to be. Google didn't have Google to contend with.

Will it fail? Probably. But the stakes are enormous, so you can't blame a rich smart guy for trying.

Re:My god, it's full of... (5, Interesting)

wvmarle (1070040) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727265)

Google at the time had a.o. AltaVista to contend with, at the time the number-one search engine. It was set up by some college students in their dorm room, who had a better idea about searching/indexing web pages, and managed to implement that idea. Then it went live from a single computer for their friends. Who told their friends, and soon the whole campus used them, etc.

Google never advertised their service, it was pure word of mouth. They just got better results than the competition. And they got started of course in a geek environment, so the first word got out and spread quickly.

Good chance that the "next Google" starts up just like that. Hell, I bet The Pirate Bay started up that way. Craigslist did so at least - just a guy called Craig who started a local classifieds page for friends and friends of friends.

Yes the stakes are huge but just throwing money at the problem generally won't get you far, I would say good chance it gets you doomed even as big money often takes away the focus from the innovation that is needed.

Re:My god, it's full of... (1)

N1AK (864906) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727457)

Good chance that the "next Google" starts up just like that.

If you mean the next big internet based company you might be right, if you mean the next dominant player in the search market then you're almost certainly wrong.

Doing anything which requires an exhaustive or near exhaustive database of internet content requires far more resources than it would have in the mid-90s. Doing something that requires you to actually rate / select from this database of billions of records also requires resources well beyond those that Google had when they formed. Unless someone manages to work out a way to provide good quality search results without indexing the majority of the internet and rating algorithms orders of magnitudes faster than those currently available no small player will get far in generic search.

Search is harder than most markets to break into, the resources required start extremely high even if you only have a few users.

Re:My god, it's full of... (2, Insightful)

wvmarle (1070040) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727543)

From The History of Google [wikipedia.org] :

Some Rough Statistics (from August 29th, 1996)
Total indexable HTML urls: 75.2306 Million
Total content downloaded: 207.022 gigabytes

BackRub is written in Java and Python and runs on several Sun Ultras and Intel Pentiums running Linux. The primary database is kept on an Sun Ultra II with 28GB of disk.

That were, at the time, very serious computing resources, but nothing special for a university to have available. Nowadays this will be the same: just add a zero or two for to the specs. It is even something that a normal start-up with venture capital funding can afford, start up a little smaller and it becomes living room material. 1000/1000M Internet is readily available even for consumers, so even bandwidth is not a problem. For starting up there is no need to index "the Internet", just a large enough chunk of it. 5-10% will do for starters, really, almost all you want to know is there already, just the more obscure stuff not but that will come automatically in time. Even Google is indexing only a part of the Internet, and I wouldn't be surprised if it is only about 50-70% of all the pages available.

It may have become harder to enter the search market than it was, but certainly not undoable. Sergei and Larry started this at their university as research project, using stuff they had sitting around there. No reason why it can not be done again that way.

Re:My god, it's full of... (1)

kwikrick (755625) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727323)

5 million lines of code, what a monster! It seems to me they just coded some special case for every question they could think of. The grunt work approach to AI.

Re:My god, it's full of... (1)

ioshhdflwuegfh (1067182) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727615)

5 *million* lines of Mathematica? How many code monkeys does he have working for him?

I don't know, but many NewbieProgrammerMen.

A New Kind Of "Living Up To" (3, Insightful)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726801)

The Hype: The singularity is here people and Wolfram is our prophet!
The Demo: It's like a search engine but not as good, so he doesn't like you calling it that.
The Product: I can't wait.

And can it deal with paradoxes? (3, Funny)

wisty (1335733) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727165)

Quick, somebody ask it what "the first number not nameable in under ten words" is!

search engine that supports pregex (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27726837)

I'm still waiting on a decent search engine that supports perl regular expressions

Re:search engine that supports pregex (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27726865)

Amen to that! I think that google code search does though normal google doesn't.

Re:search engine that supports pregex (4, Insightful)

julesh (229690) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726993)

I'm still waiting on a decent search engine that supports perl regular expressions

You'll be waiting for a long time. It's impossible to index a database for matching via regex, therefore searches on such an engine would be inordinately expensive to process.

Re:search engine that supports pregex (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727083)

Impossible? ...I like a challenge like that.

Maybe some kind of Bloom filter combination...

Re:search engine that supports pregex (4, Informative)

Stan Vassilev (939229) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727491)

You'll be waiting for a long time. It's impossible to index a database for matching via regex, therefore searches on such an engine would be inordinately expensive to process.

Heh, check the Syntax and Examples here: http://www.google.com/codesearch [google.com]

I mean no offense, however if one can't do it in 5 mins with with an off-the-shelf SQL database, doesn't mean no one can do it :).

Re:search engine that supports pregex (1)

jeremyp (130771) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727503)

Such a search engine would, by definition, not be decent. The syntax of Perl regex is very powerful but virtually incomprehensible to most people. The search engine would also be very slow.

Google-killer? (5, Insightful)

Anenome (1250374) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726863)

Google won't be killed until someone perfects an AI that you can have a search 'conversation' with, who can understand goddamn context and intelligently narrow down, find relevant articles that don't contain your keywords, etc. Kinda like the librarian from Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" novel, but more powerful.

The main reason no one will beat Google until then is that Google is extremely wealthy and can outspend you as it continually perfects information sorting itself, not to mention buy any technology that comes close to threatening it. If you really developed a Google-killer and presented it to the world, do you also have the stones to turn down, say, $100 million? I don't think so, it would take you probably 20-30 years to make that on your own, if you're lucky, with the search field full of competition and Google's mature business-plan in place. Even the days of Alta-Vista were essentially the Cowboy West, unsophisticated and without any proven business plans. Google walked in and owned right away, then discovered how to make money off search when no one else was.

Even then, the founders of Google tried to sell their brilliant search idea not for $100 million dollars, but for $1 million dollars, and there were no takers. They were forced to go it alone. If someone had offered them $500,000 they probably would've taken it and ran.

Although, if you really do develop an AI, there'll be a billion more profit opportunities than search, that's peripheral. An AI can do menial labor far better, faster, stronger than a human. What happens when McDonalds is staffed solely by robots. That would be pretty damn cool actually. They work for the price of electricity, maybe we can get the price of a cheeseburger back down to $0.25 :D

McDonalds & Automation? (0, Offtopic)

RotateLeftByte (797477) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726955)

Quote
What happens when McDonalds is staffed solely by robots. That would be pretty damn cool actually. They work for the price of electricity, maybe we can get the price of a cheeseburger back down to $0.25 :D
end Quote

The most important question is however.

Will a BIg Mac still taste like regurgidated cardboard?

Think I'm biased? Well maybe, I plan on going through life without EVER setting foot in a McD's (That includes drive through's). What they describe/offer as food does not interest me in the slightest and NO, I don't work for a competitor.

Re:McDonalds & Automation? (0, Offtopic)

Logic and Reason (952833) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727055)

...I plan on going through life without EVER setting foot in a McD's (That includes drive through's).

"Setting foot in a McD's" does not include drive-throughs pretty much by definition.

What they describe/offer as food does not interest me in the slightest...

Wow, good for you. What do you want, a medal? You're like those insufferable twats who brag about not owning a television.

Re:McDonalds & Automation? (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727447)

Hey! I have never been to a McD's *and* don't own a TV!

So there you go

Re:McDonalds & Automation? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727591)

We like to think of ourselves as smarter than the rest of you. Also, we won't die fat and miserable after a lifetime of heart disease and brain atrophy due to feeding both our heads and our stomachs with the trash that passes off as food and entertainment.

Oh wait, did you just call me insufferable? How dare you!

Re:McDonalds & Automation? (0, Offtopic)

wisty (1335733) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727123)

You would have to add in the cost of the beef and cheese in the cheeseburger. I'm not sure that 25 cents is low enough.

Re:Google-killer? (4, Insightful)

Schemat1c (464768) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727097)

The main reason no one will beat Google until then is that Google is extremely wealthy and can outspend you as it continually perfects information sorting itself, not to mention buy any technology that comes close to threatening it.

Yes because it's always the wealthy, on top company that innovates the ground breaking ideas, like the airplane, the home computer, the telephone...

Oh wait...

This could work. (5, Informative)

Max Romantschuk (132276) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726897)

It seems they are not trying to index the web, nor trying to replace Google.

Instead they are trying to compute knowledge-worthy data from a small subset of the web using natural language algorithms.

Queries like "What is the melting point of iron?" are processed and answered, instead of just trying to score pages based on keywords.

This could really work.

Re:This could work. (3, Insightful)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726909)

Or, ya know, not.

I'm not calling Wolfram a big academic fraud with an even bigger opinion of himself, but so far we've seen no evidence that he has done anything.

Re:This could work. (2, Funny)

IgnoramusMaximus (692000) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726953)

I'm not calling Wolfram a big academic fraud with an even bigger opinion of himself,

The thing is called "Wolfram Alpha", probably as in "Alpha and Omega".

Enough said.

Reminds of this Super Genius [wikipedia.org] .

Re:This could work. (2, Insightful)

Max Romantschuk (132276) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726957)

Or, ya know, not.

I'm not calling Wolfram a big academic fraud with an even bigger opinion of himself, but so far we've seen no evidence that he has done anything.

I said it could work. ;)

So far there's no evidence in either direction. But it's more fun to stay optimistic.

Re:This could work. (4, Informative)

mcrbids (148650) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727235)

"Wolfie" Steve Wolfram HAS developed a rather successful software for mathematical modeling. You may have heard of it: "Mathematica". He also wrote a book called "A new kind of Science" which lays out some interesting ideas based on what are called "Cellular Automata" - basically a simple algorithm turned into a loop.

Certain, very simple algorithms appear to be rather respectable pseudo-random number generators, and he uses the fact that they are (repeatable) pseudo-random number generators to be a plus rather than a minus.

I'd like to see some challenging of his ideas, specifically, just how "random" is the output of these simple algorithms? Are they really as incompressible as they seem? It strikes me that there are only so many states possible in a narrow, N-bit wide field that he uses like a register, and thus this would severely limit the "randomness" in the result to being far less than claimed.

In his book, he went too far - he even suggested that cellular automata explain all the phenomenon of the universe! - and for that, his other, useful ideas will tend to be dismissed, even if he IS right.

Re:This could work. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727713)

PRNGs have a fixed period after which they start repeating, but some of them have a provably very large period---large enough that our universe could "fit in."

Re:This could work. (1)

Spy Hunter (317220) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727279)

they are trying to compute knowledge-worthy data from a small subset of the web

Not even that. Their database of facts is manually constructed, like the Yahoo index of old. The "natural language processing" is only for queries. This, to me, is the major weakness of the idea.

You can try to say that Wolfram Alpha is a different kind of product than Internet search, but it will have to compete with Google anyway. Until Alpha can crawl the web on its own and automatically construct databases concerning hard-to-quantify things like celebrities, sports, health, news, products, etc., it won't be useful for the vast majority of Internet queries, and especially the kind that make advertising money. It won't be clear to your average search engine user why a certain query would or wouldn't work. Instead of facing that uncertainty users will simply continue to use Google, which has a "good enough" answer for nearly everything.

Hopefully Alpha can find a niche answering homework questions, because I'd love to see the idea evolve further.

Re:This could work. (2, Informative)

will_die (586523) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727761)

Using your melting point of iron on google gives the answer 1811K right at the top along with a link source.
Alpha is going to have to be alot better which would require human intervention which leads to a Yahoo type directory and that has alot less entries.

Don't bother... (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27726925)

... until it's in beta.

Why even mention Google?? (0, Offtopic)

barius (1224526) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726939)

The whole article was an advert for Google. The W|A search engine has nothing to do with the kind of problems solved by the Google algorithm so why does every article about it seem to bring up Google on every other line??

Re:Why even mention Google?? (1)

NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727009)

Probably because there's no discernible difference between them: Alpha is described to be a web page where you type queries into a text box (queries much like you'd type into Google, it appears), click a button, and it gives you answers that are somehow better than Google's.

Or it could that all the tech reporters just like hating on Google and hope that some uber-genius will come along and smack them down David vs. Goliath style. (Disclaimer: In no way am I saying Wolfram is any kind of uber-genius.)

The hype? (4, Insightful)

Vertana (1094987) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726951)

This is the first time I've ever heard about it and I usually check technologically acclimated news sites. Is this a "Google killer" like Cuil was?

Re:The hype? (1)

Warlord88 (1065794) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727403)

Seriously. Why does every other new search engine has to labeled as Google-killer? The hype surrounding cuil died down like anything.

Great for financial data (5, Interesting)

Animats (122034) | more than 4 years ago | (#27726983)

If they can figure out how to get this thing to understand financial data, it would be quite useful. That whole area needs more theoretical work.

Machine understanding of financial data is tough. Partly because the data is willfully obfuscated. I once developed a system for turning SEC filings into XBRL (which is an XML representation for financial statements.) At one point, I had several hundred euphemisms for "Net Loss". The connection between financial reporting and reality is at times tenuous.

Accounting is fundamentally mis-designed. The problem is that some numbers are actual, some have tolerances, some are estimates whose actual value will be known at a future date, and some are estimates whose actual value will never be known. Numbers of all four categories are added, and the result is given as a number without a tolerance. That's just wrong. Accounting works that way for historical reasons; it was designed when arithmetic was expensive. Why it stays that way is more interesting, but beyond the scope of this posting. Because of these problems, machine understanding of traditional accounting data is very difficult.

(Back when I did Downside [downside.com] I was more into this, but when I started getting invited to accounting conferences, I realized I didn't want to get into accounting standardization as a field.)

Re:Great for financial data (2, Insightful)

johannesg (664142) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727031)

Why it stays that way is more interesting, but beyond the scope of this posting.

Would it be entirely inaccurate if I could summarize that with the single word "greed"?

Re:Great for financial data (1)

The J Kid (266953) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727777)

Why it stays that way is more interesting, but beyond the scope of this posting.

Would it be entirely inaccurate if I could summarize that with the single word "greed"?

No, it's because it's a necessary simplification of an uncertain future. Mark-to-market ftw, as the kids say.

Re:Great for financial data (4, Insightful)

DeadDecoy (877617) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727175)

Meh, financial analysis is tough because it's a chaotic system that monitors itself. Upon monitoring itself, it changes the system. Sure, you might be able to model the data, but models are just simplifications of the actual system. And this sux because the minutia of each possible data point could have wide-sweeping implications for the whole system. You come up with a tool to measure the whole system (because it's not simply the sum of its pieces), you'll be king of the world.

Re:Great for financial data (1)

Ztream (584474) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727339)

Finally someone who understands the role of chaos/complexity in finance - it seems to me that even economists in general have never viewed it that way (though some are working on it).

I don't think you can come up with the tool you are suggesting, though, because the tool would alter the game and would thus have to take *itself* into account in the model, and it can only do this through the simplifications you want to avoid.

Re:Great for financial data (1)

dargaud (518470) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727375)

Accounting works that way for historical reasons; it was designed when arithmetic was expensive.

As an engineer who had to study accounting briefly in order to get my degree, it made me want to scream: "What, you haven't discovered what negative numbers are by now ?!?" and many other expletives. It stays that way because it allows for creative accounting.

Re:Great for financial data (3, Interesting)

gtall (79522) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727787)

I think it is worse than that. They use those formulas because it prevents them having to think. I had accounting in a one semester stint in the Business School at a Large Unnamed University (before I realized that way madness lay). In the middle of an exam, I couldn't remember the Big Formula for solving one particular problem. So I derived my own, solved the problem with the correct answer. My formula was a special case of the Big Formula and my formula was just fine for the particular test problem. I got no credit, that's when I figured Business School Product deserved no credit.

Re:Great for financial data (1)

Bromskloss (750445) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727733)

Accounting works that way for historical reasons; it was designed when arithmetic was expensive. Why it stays that way is more interesting, but beyond the scope of this posting.

I'd find it interesting to hear about, if you would care to elaborate or provide links.

evolutionary doesn't cut it... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27726987)

I think in an established market, simply evolving the product slightly isn't enough. The industry leaders will just catch up & you'll end up at most cannibalizing the existing competitor market share & perhaps at most, if you are lucky, some of the market share of the leader.

Either you've got to find/create a new market (that has sufficient room for growth) or create a a product so much better that the industry leaders just can't recreate in a matter of 6months to a year (maybe 2 if you are lucky). If you can't, either there's not enough money to be made or the industry leaders will just leverage their existing market share & capital to provide the new service (or you might be lucky & they incorrectly ignore the new market).

With a company the size of Google, competition is difficult in something like the search space, especially given that their real business is advertising for the most part. So your search engine needs to be good, but equally as important it needs to be good for advertisers so that you can generate money.

It'll be hard for you to compete since Google will get much better ROI on their search engine than you can on yours using AdSense (or any other advertisement provider unless you strike some kind of great deal) since Google gets all the money for advertisements on their site.

Google is also now a giant. They get a huge stream of income & have lots of smart people to throw at a problem like this. They also have a lot of money, so they can lose money on a competing project for a while for the sake of offering competition.

3.125% (4, Insightful)

MichaelFurey (1460819) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727003)

Another query with a very sophisticated result was "uncle's uncle's brother's son." [...] Alpha actually returns an interactive genealogic tree with additional information, including data about the 'blood relationship fraction,' for example (3.125% in this case).

Your "uncle's uncle's brother's son" could well be your father.

Re:3.125% (1)

lecithin (745575) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727107)

Or these days, your mother.

Queue Yo momma's so ugly jokes... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727487)

Yo momma's so ugly, everybody in the family calls here the uncle's uncle's brother's son to save embarrassment.

Re:3.125% (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727277)

It could well be that 'blood relationship fraction,' of your father _IS_ 3.125%.

It does happen, even in best families.

Wolfram Hart (4, Funny)

Syhra (1089779) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727043)

Just announced: Corey Hart has joined on as the lead promoter of the new "computational knowledge engine." In related news they have now renamed the engine to signify the merging of their separate talents.

"I believe that Wolfram Hart has the ability to become the Alpha and the Omega of internet informatics" said Hart in a midnight press conference.

Not everyone is celebrating this new turn of events, however. A man only identifying himself as Angel has come out in opposition to a company who openly support those that wear their sunglasses only at night.

Google Killer == Evil? (5, Funny)

mcbutterbuns (1005301) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727219)

If Google does no evil and someone kills them, doesn't that then make the killer evil?

I don't know if I like where this is going.

The end of understanding stuff. (3, Insightful)

wvmarle (1070040) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727237)

From TFA:

Alpha, however, will probably be a worthy challenger for Wikipedia and many textbooks and reference works. Instead of looking up basic encyclopedic information there, users can just go to Alpha instead, where they will get a direct answer to their question, as well as a nicely presented set of graphs and other info.

So this means we just get the straight answer in the future. No more thinking for yourself, no more understanding where the answer comes from, no more critical thinking about the validity of the answer. E.g. TFA mentions that the answer to how many Internet users there are in Europe includes the factoid that there are only 93 in Vatican City. Is this true? Well it must be because Alpha gives it, right? Or maybe it is not true? But why would it be not true and what would be a more realistic number? How many people do really live/work in Vatican City, for example? How does this relate to the number of Internet users?

An encyclopedia search will give one heaps of background information that is highly relevant to the question, and gives a lot of understanding about the answer. It makes the answer more than just a number.

For example if one would look up the question "what is the national flag of the USA", the answer is of course "the stars and stripes", and may include an image. But now I happen to know there is a story behind it: why this number of stars, and that number of stripes, and those colours. I bet this will be in Wikipedia's answer but not in Alpha's answer.

Search engines like this sound really interesting to me, and can be very useful, though it will never replace textbooks and encyclopedias. There is just so much more to answer to a query than just a straight number. And there are so many questions that can not be answered that way, such as "why is polcarbonate so much more temperature resistant than polyethylene?" for example. The full answer to this question includes details about the chemical make-up of the two polymers, and how polymer chains work. That is what textbooks are for.

Re:The end of understanding stuff. (1)

pinkstuff (758732) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727589)

One major application of this is machine learning/AI. A machine wouldn't necessarily need all of the info in Wiki, just the answer to direct questions.

This guy is indeed so full of himself (2, Interesting)

Lord Lode (1290856) | more than 4 years ago | (#27727441)

I read his book "a new kind of sciene", but while it is interesting indeed, his writing style is so full of himself that it gets annoying after a while. It looks unprofessional. He should have used a more neutral writing style and not mention himself all the time. What he did really hurts the book, and my image of him whenever I hear about other projects, like this one, related to his name.

There is already such a search engine (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727539)

There is already such a search engine that has been in beta for a while. Go here : http://www.trueknowledge.com/ [trueknowledge.com] An earlier version (quizbot) has been available for ages (although not nearly as good as the current trueknowledge beta): http://quizbot.trueknowledge.com/ [trueknowledge.com]

Does Google need to be killed? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#27727653)

I'm wondering why everyone is so excited about a product that can kill Google. Is it the anarchist nature of Slashdotter's coming out? Just like to point out that for something to be a "Google Killer" it needs to be better than Google, therefore it would be have an even larger portion of the market, to kill this "Evil" you need to install a greater evil
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