Watch out, Google. A British physicist is working on a new search engine he thinks "could be as important as Google."
Stephen Wolfram, the brain behind the Mathematica and A New Kind of Science programs, is working on what he calls an even more ambitious project that aims to not only look things up, but figure things out.
Dubbed Wolfram|Alpha, the new engine could debut within two months. Wolfram says it will know a lot, figure a lot out, and interact in natural language.
Wolfram agrees that getting computers to deal with natural language has been a major stumbling block for search engines. But he said if the knowledge is computable and the questions are presented in a form that fits into computations, it overcomes the natural-language aspects.
"I wasn't at all sure it was going to work. But I'm happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we're actually managing to make it work," Wolfram said. "Pulling all of this together to create a true computational knowledge engine is a very difficult task."
Is the Impossible Possible?
The new search engine will be at WolframAlpha.com. Searchers will enter text into one input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms. When a user types in a query, the system will understand the input and calculate the answers based on Wolfram's algorithms.
It's impossible to determine whether this represents search advancements without actually using it, notes Greg Sterling, the principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. Such claims have been made repeatedly in the past and proven to be empty. Still, Sterling added, Wolfram doesn't claim this is a Google replacement.
"Undoubtedly there will be leaps forward beyond the algorithms being used for search today and there are lots of minds working on the problem. One day true 'semantic search' will exist, where search engines understand our questions and can respond with relative precision," Sterling said. "That day may be closer than farther away. However, it's not clear at this moment whether Wolfram represents one of those leaps."
The Powerset Play
The only other search engine that has made significant progress in breaking the natural-language barrier is Powerset. Microsoft purchased Powerset last July with the goal of taking search to the next level by adding understanding of the intent and meaning behind the words in searches and Web pages.
Powerset works to overcome differences in phrasing or context between a user's search and the way information is expressed on Web pages. Today's search engines don't understand that "shrub" and "tree" are similar concepts. They also don't understand that "cancer" sometimes refers to a disease and sometimes to a horoscope, and which one a query or a Web page refers to.
Powerset also addresses the lack of clarity in the descriptions for each Web page in the search results. Sometimes a result looks relevant from its short description on the results page but turns out to be not so relevant when you visit the page. As a result, searchers frequently click results and then rapidly click back.