SXSW Watch: Wolfram on Wolfram Alpha

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Wolfram Alpha

I don’t think of myself as having the brain of a fanboy. But I do cheerfully admit to getting a little giddy when it comes to Wolfram Alpha. I think that this “computational knowledge engine” is one of the web’s most impressive pieces of technology. More important, it’s an enormously useful reference tool.

Unlike a search engine, Wolfram Alpha doesn’t try to act like it knows everything. But when it comes to factual information such as math, science and basic information about history, it knows a lot — and it lets you ask about it in plain English and nearly always understands what you want. I think of it as both my calculator and my almanac.

At SXSW Interactive last week, I spent time with the service’s creator, Stephen Wolfram, who talked with me about some of its recent additions as well as its future direction.

Stephen Wolfram

Wolfram Research

Wolfram Alpha’s latest news is the introduction of Wolfram Alpha Pro, a $4.99/month version of the otherwise free service aimed at data geeks. It includes features such as more sophisticated charting capabilities and the ability to use what Wolfram calls “random lumps of data” as input.

“If you’ve got a fairly small amount of data, just upload it to Wolfram Alpha Pro and we’ll tell you interesting things,” he explained, as he showed me its analysis of material he had prepared for speeches. “It will show how long are these notes, how long will it take to read out this text.”

Wolfram, a data geek’s data geek, talks about using the current and upcoming versions of Wolfram Alpha Pro for what he calls “personal analytics.” He fed more than 20 years’ worth of his own e-mail into the system, which responded with charts that revealed how the ebb and flow of his electronic correspondence mapped to major events in his life, such as the writing of his book, A New Kind of Science, and the launch of Wolfram Alpha itself. He also gave the system years’ worth of information on his phone calls, meetings and even the keystrokes he’s entered into his computers. The infographics he got in return told him things like how often the phone conferences he attended started on time.

Not everybody has as much data of this sort on hand as Wolfram does. (Okay, maybe nobody does.) And not everyone will be interested in the serious research tools that Wolfram Alpha Pro provides. But Wolfram Alpha is getting more approachable, too. “We’ve been adding more domains — consumer, sports, retail locations like Starbucks, product data from Best Buy,” Wolfram said. “We’ll be getting data from a bunch of sources.”

Even as Wolfram Alpha evolves, it’s sticking to its mission of providing immediate, contextualized information rather than off-site links. Traditional search engines such as Google, Wolfram told me, are like librarians who suggest books you might want to read. Wolfram Alpha, he said, is “an analog of a research analyst who says, ‘Here’s a nicely formatted table of data’.”

Still, Wolfram is interested in combining Wolfram Alpha results with traditional search-engine results, a combo that the company has created in the past in collaboration with Microsoft’s Bing. More recently, he told me, it said to itself “Let’s just do it the way we’d do it ourselves” and is working on that idea. He also showed me a new children’s atlas for the iPad from Touch Press, a company spun out of Wolfram Alpha; it and other Touch Press creations turn Wolfram Alpha data into slick, interactive e-books.

Wolfram Alpha is built on the foundation of Mathematica, the venerable technical computing software that was the original effort of Wolfram’s company, Wolfram Research, back in the 1980s. “I’m used to very long-term projects,” he told me. “The approach we’re taking is building on this 25-year-old stack of technology.” While Wolfram says he initially conceived of Wolfram Alpha as “a partially philanthropic project,” it’s grown by leaps and bounds and has ambitious dreams. “We need to monetize this thing,” he told me. “We’ve got a couple of hundred people working on it.”

Wolfram Alpha Pro is part of that monetization effort; so are some experiments with advertising, as well as custom versions of the service that the company is building for corporate customers. So is the partnership with Apple that makes Wolfram Alpha the source of some of the answers that the iPhone 4S’s Siri provides.

Speaking of Siri, I asked Wolfram if she was helping to alert a broader audience to Wolfram Alpha’s existence. She is, he said. But even without Siri, he told me, the service is catching on, especially in academia: “We have a very decent fraction of U.S. college students using us.”

That’s great to hear. Basically, I think that everyone who wants quick access to reliable information should be using Wolfram Alpha. Before it launched, futurist/entrepreneur Nova Spivack said it could be as important as Google; I continue to believe that he was right about its potential, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.