While browsing the stacks of magazines at a local drug store (a favourite pastime of mine), the cover of MIT’s Technology Review caught my attention.
Pictured was the newest in the Google-dominated search engine world — Wolfram Alpha.
Launched on May 15 of this year (2 months, 27 days, 22 hours, 24 minutes, 47 seconds ago, when I asked it) and branded as a “computational knowledge engine” (whatever that means), Wolfram differs from its Google competitor in that it answers your pressing questions and queries from a base of knowledge it curates, instead of pulling results purely from the web.
Like the kid in class, who when asked a simple (usually hypothetical) question during a lecture, chooses to answer in paragraph form — except, with Wolfram, the answers are useful.
When I entered the question, “What is a student?” — something I thought may be too ambiguous to answer beyond a simple definition — Wolfram gave me that basic definition, as well as word origins, frequency of use, synonyms and a variety of other intriguing information — all laid out in an easy-to-use, one-stop-shop page.
Probed with a more difficult question — “What is my diploma worth?” — Wolfram was unable to compute an answer. But if you read the FAQs provided on the website, you’ll learn Wolfram is programmed solely on fact and not opinion.
So instead I tred a more complex input, that required a result that would otherwise be hard to find and that I would have to organize graphically on my own, if I was say, writing a paper on “Employment in the Millennium.”
I enter “U.S. salaries 2000 2009” and it gives me this.
Not bad. Now that’s information tailored to my exact needs with the bonus of a chart I could pop right into an essay (assuming both my professor and I agree the calculations are correct).
Even though Wolfram is still tweaking its know-how, I’m sold on the design and innovation because I’ve never seen an engine as organized as this. Plus, with it being built on the back of a massive software brain capable of millions of lines of code for computing information, I feel confident sourcing it academically.
Combining the ease of Google, encyclopedia-like quality of Wikipedia (without the public interference), Wolfram reminds me of just how innovate and easy learning away from the classroom has become.
As an avid believer in solid research, even if it’s just an everyday question, and blessed (cursed?) with a curious mind, I feel like a virtual dumpster diver on the Internet — finding treasures by sifting through the rubbish. And that rubbish is getting easier to navigate with tools like Wolfram.
Long gone are the days of cracking open outdated books in the library (though, most professors are still sticking to a certain number of mandatory hard copy resources for projects and papers). And to fill that nostalgic void is the incomprehensible world of Internet research.
Need a journal article on an obscure topic? JSTOR has that.
Want to study French pronominal verbs? Click to the University of Texas’ in-depth interactive training grounds.
Want to know how many airports Palau has? The CIA’s World Factbook has that and more (It’s three, in case you were wondering, but only one has a paved runway).
This is only a tiny sample of what the Internet has to offer students. Between schools’ website resources; independent, trusted sites; the upcoming trend of digitizing of textbooks and search engines that are redefining the answers to our questions, we have exceeded the capabilities of the printed word and constantly breaking new ground in a world of endless interactivity, ingenuity and up-to-the-minute information.
So go ahead, ask away.
My next question?
How many days of summer are left?
– photo by Karl Gunnarsson