Wolfram|Alpha finally launched this last weekend. I'd been hearing about it for a while, but had only been paying marginal attention. In case you're not familiar with it, Wolfram|alpha is the latest chunk of code from the big brain that brought the world Mathematica, Stephen Wolfram. (And if you don't know about Mathematica, that's ok. Suffice it to say it's by big math brains for big math brains and is far beyond my scope of ability or desire as far as math goes. Nonetheless, it's pretty awesome.)
They call Wolfram|Alpha a computational knowledge engine. It's important to note that it is not a search engine. It has it's own massive database full of, well, data and is very good at computing, comparing and presenting it. If you know how to ask.
The FAQ says, "Eventually you should be able to ask it about essentially any kind of systematic factual knowledge." Fascinating. (No, seriously. I got a Spock eyebrow thing going on here.) The potential for this is the stuff of SciFi. People like to joke about Google becoming Skynet, but Wolfram|Alpha is sort of like the next rung on the ladder leading to Singularity. Don't panic though, we're still quite a ways away. Probably.
So, it's interesting, but is it useful? The more you play with it, the more you understand what you can do with it. Whether or not you have any application for what you can do with it is another story. I can see it being of immense value for students and researchers. Between Google, Wikipedia and Wolfram|Alpha I have to wonder if textbook publishers are starting to really get worried about the web. Beyond that though? I can't see the need to visit it very often.
It is, however, currently a bit of a time suck since I continue to geek out on what it does and doesn't know, and how it compares things.
I asked it about my name, Chris, and it told me that it was the 350th most popular name in the US in 2007. Realizing that was woefully inaccurate, I asked it about Christopher and it told me that was 6th. Then, out of curiousity, I ask about both names and it gave me a nice comparison, including the History for US births with each of those names:
I asked "apple dell sony microsoft palm rim market cap" and it gave me all the relevant numbers, even catching that RIM stands for Research in Motion. I asked it about "3 dice" and it drew me a lovely little bell curve. (It apparently only knows about six-sided dice though. Sorry D&D faithful.) I asked it about the day I was born and it told me there were "no known major notable events," which is a data point my mother is sure to dispute. I did, however learn that there was a waning crescent moon which was 41.52% illuminated.
I also have to admit to spending a bit of time playing with the what it knows about Astronomical bodies and their distances and figuring out how long it would get places with the Enterprise at warp 9.6. (No, W|A doesn't know warp, so you have to translate warp to factors of c for yourself.)
Speaking of family (no, I did... I mentioned my mom in the paragraph before last, pay attention), I'd like to point out that Wolfram|Alpha even understands the weird language of genealogy. Go ahead and ask it what a second cousin once removed is and it will draw you a picture.
Ok, I'm impressed.