Wolfram Alpha

New search engines make for easy posts for lazy bloggers – type in your favorite search term (often your own name), snark that you can’t find it, and hit the publish button.  This post might not be an exception.

Valleywag claims that Wolfram Alpha “excels at providing information people don’t care about“.    Harsh, but is it fair?  I tried it on something I do care about, finding the average rate for statistical consulting.  Unfortunately, “what is the average statistical consulting rate?” or even just “statistical consulting rate”  gives nothing on Wolfram Alpha, while Google returns as its second hit a pdf from the American Statistical Association – a survey of statistical consulting rates.  Score one for Google.  Just for fun, I tried out cuil [remember them?], which gave similar results to Google, without the most useful one, but with a photo of college students being served lunch.

What’s going on here?  It seems to be an example of a general principle – it can be very hard to beat a simple idea, whether it be exponential smoothing, index funds, or the script for Friends.  Google’s basic idea is pretty simple – look at pages that get the most links from other pages.  Wolfram Alpha’s is more complicated and probably “smarter”.  Wolfram might object that this was not a fair test, and I should have asked for the integral of x^2 sin x, and that eventually they will get around to working out other quantitative questions such as average consulting rates, how much it costs to rent an apartment in Chicago or what the most fuel-efficient small car is.  In the meantime, it seems that Valleywag has a point, and the lesson to be learned is that useful beats smart any day of the week.

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3 Responses to “Wolfram Alpha”

  1. Scott Locklin Says:

    As it happens, I know how “Alpha” works, and will riff off your blog to provide a sort of ad-hoc explanation. it’s really really old tech, and you can see an example of it when you fire up emacs ^X doctor

  2. Wolfram Alpha, Semantic Web, and back to the pre AI winter future « Locklin on science Says:

    […] isn’t a big surprise. Most things suck. As my friend Philip says, simple solutions are often better. I remember when we worked together, he was fond of pointing this […]

  3. Bing! Why does my search go Bing? « Erehweb’s Blog Says:

    […] Why does my search go Bing? By erehweb Loyal readers will know that I’ve said that new search engines make for easy posts for lazy bloggers.  Somebody at Microsoft must like me (or think that I’m lazy), as MSFT has recently released […]

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