Stephen Wolfram Q&A

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Some collected questions and answers by Stephen Wolfram

Questions may be edited for brevity; see links for full questions.

May 29, 2009

From: Interview by Monica Attard, ABC Local

How important is it to you to identify sources on Wolfram|Alpha?

Well, I think our approach as you’re alluding to, it’s rather different from a search engine. A search engine is just saying, look we as the search engine, we’re not making any judgments about any of this information—we’re just giving you… you know, here are 10 links that you can go read and make your own judgment about them. You know, we’ll use some algorithms to try and decide which link should be above which other link. But you’re kind of on your own, it’s like we’re not going to answer your question, we’re just going to tell you go read these things and you should be able to find the answer there.

We’re doing something in a sense much more outrageous and ambitious in a sense, which is to say, “Look, we’re going to try and really take responsibility for the information in the system, we’re going to try and curate it all, kind of organize it, set it up so that we can actually give you a specific answer to your question, and we’re going to take responsibility for all of this”.

One of the things that’s challenging is most of the things that you get from Wolfram|Alpha didn’t just come—weren’t just sort of plucked out of a database. They came from taking three or four different pieces of information, you know, computing a result based on combining different numbers and things like this. Maybe doing something simple like converting units, maybe doing something more complicated like interpolating data, these types of things.

So it’s not really a thing where you can just say we got it from here, you know, this is the reference. It ends up going through a quite complicated process and system for us, so that we end up really having to take full responsibility for what comes out. It’s very scary because there are ten trillion numbers in Wolfram|Alpha, and a thing that upsets me greatly—but it doesn’t stop me doing the project—is that I know some of those numbers are wrong, and the challenge is just to get as many of them right as possible, and the really great thing that’s happened just in the past week really is now that Wolfram|Alpha is live in the world, we’re discovering that a lot of people out there really want to help make this effort succeed and are telling us, you know, this thing is wrong, that number needs to be updated, etc. It’s really a very nice kind of cooperative process.

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