Sunday, April 26, 2009

New Under the Silicon Sun

In the old days the computer aisle at the bookstore used to be full of old friends. There were books on MS Dos, DR Dos, Borland C++, and other titles I could recognize. The trick was to figure out the best book for the money. Today that's much easier with the likes of Amazon's rated comments, but the selection of subjects boggles the mind. I don't even understand what the majority of the books are about, judging from the title. I'm trying to think back to remember when this happened, this explosion of variety of ways to use the computer. Certainly things became unmanageable after the Internet exploded. There's always something new around the corner.

Too new to actually be here yet is Stephen Wolfram's Alpha, which is supposed to launch in May of this year. It's like a search engine, but with language processing and computation built in. This is not to say that you can't do computations in Google. See below, as it exponentiates i (square root of minus one) times pi to get the correct answer.
But if you google "son of a grandson," Google won't draw a family tree for you. Supposedly, this is the sort of thing that five million lines of Mathematica running a search engine get for you, according to a review of Alpha on ReadWriteWeb.

One complaint about search engines is that it takes a critical eye to wade through the results to find pertinent information. Alpha is supposed to be smarter about the kinds of results it returns, especially for quantitative information. This is a specialization, and is unlikely to supplant the likes of Google or Yahoo for many of the kinds of searches frequently done. What's the difference? According to TechCrunch's review:
Basically it means that you can ask it factual questions and it computes answers for you.

It doesn’t simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn’t just a giant database of knowledge, like the Wikipedia. It doesn’t simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents, like Powerset, for example. Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions — like questions that have factual answers such as “What country is Timbuktu in?” or “How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?” or “What is the average rainfall in Seattle?”

In order to do this, Alpha has to have all kinds of models in the background. In some sense, understanding has to be programmed in, to know that a proton is a component of an atom, for example.

There's probably a downside. Instead of just dealing with cut and pasted text in student papers, now there will be flawless pie charts and ratios too, I suppose, all a product of unthinking clicking around. It seems to me that this progression makes information literacy training more and more important.

Other sites of interest:

No comments:

Post a Comment