Wolfram Alpha What Google's New Rival Knows -- and Doesn't

Clever presentation, but a weak database: The soon-to-be-launched Wolfram Alpha search engine is already being touted as the "Google killer." SPIEGEL ONLINE has tested a preliminary version. The conclusion: It knows a lot about aspirin, a little about culture -- and it thinks German Chancellor Angela Merkel's political party is an airport.

Wolfram Alpha is not a "Google killer." Nor is it, in fact, a search engine. Instead, it is a "computational knowledge engine," says Stephen Wolfram, inventor of the new online service. He proudly describes his creation as "a new paradigm for the use of computers and the Web." His goal is to finally make good on the promise that computer pioneers made in the 1950s: to make computers that can come up with their own answers to questions.

Wolfram, a physicist, certainly seems to have the background needed for such a task. He invented the "Mathematica" software package, a universal problem solver for mathematical questions of all kinds, especially those that statisticians, scientists and mathematicians pose. And since the program requires so much processing power, some computer magazines even use it to test the capacity and performance of PCs.

Now Wolfram wants to revolutionize the way we search for answers online. The Wolfram Alpha "answer machine" is meant to show us how to get there by doing much the same thing as Google -- only better. Well, at least in theory.

Election results, company sales figures, TV viewer levels, and Olympic medal tables -- SPIEGEL ONLINE tests how well Wolfram Alpha knows its stuff.

Politics -- Elections, What Elections?

What were the exact results of the 2008 US presidential elections? Wolfram Alpha should be able to answer that sort of question in great detail -- or at least you would think so.

Unfortunately, the search query "presidential election 2008 results" only offers up a message saying that the search engine "isn't sure what to do with your input." A simplified version ("presidential election") also failed. A search for "election" finally provided an explanation -- the category "Government" is shown, with the rather cryptic message: "Development of this topic is under investigation..."

In Google, the first result for the inquiry "presidential election 2008 results" leads to a summary page from CNN. Google even suggests a direct link to the nationwide and state-by-state results.

Wolfram Alpha also disappoints when it comes to searches on other political topics:

  • Democratic Party? Not yet documented.
  • CDU (ed's note: Germany's center-right Christian Democratic Union political party)? Camden Airport in Australia (but with current weather information).
  • New York crime rate? No results.
  • New York mayor? Wolfram Alpha doesn't know who he is -- but Google's first result is Michael Bloomberg's official Web site.

Of course, as a US-centered project which only answers queries written in English, Wolfram Alpha doesn't necessary have to be familiar with Germany's CDU. But by the time of its official launch, at the latest, Wolfram Alpha needs to be able to analyze databases of election results and maybe also access information about governments in US states or countries around the world. This flaw is even more apparent because Wolfram Alpha compiles very detailed country profiles (see next section) -- but evidently doesn't know who is currently in power.

Countries -- Suspicious Statistics

Wolfram Alpha can provide very detailed information about individual countries. A search for "Germany" immediately comes up with details such as:

  • All bordering states, including the exact length of the shared borders in kilometers (e.g. 786 km with Austria, 68 km with Denmark)
  • A list of the 10 largest cities (with population statistics).

However, some of the numbers seem a bit suspicious. As part of its description of German culture, Wolfram Alpha lists languages -- but without explaining what the various percentages mean or how they relate to each other and the topic at hand:

  • German 96 %
  • Upper Saxon 2.6 %
  • Kölsch 0.32 %
  • Bavarian 0.31 %
  • Polish 0.31 %

Does that make Polish a German dialect? Are dialects and languages intertwined because they are both used in everyday speech? Then, what about Turkish? Or Danish, an official minority language? Where the results come from and what exactly is being counted is not explained. The only listed source is: "Wolfram|Alpha curated data, 2009; Wolfram Mathematica CountryData."

A Google search for "Germany" (in the English-language version) provides the Wikipedia article on the country as the first result.

A unique feature of Wolfram Alpha is the ability to simultaneously search for two, three or more different countries: A search inquiry like "US vs China" or "US vs China vs Germany vs Russia" delivers a uniquely generated results page on which all of the available data is compared with corresponding data from other countries. The user can see at a glance which country has the highest unemployment, where the life expectancy of citizens is the lowest and how the country ranks in comparison with the rest of the world. It's impressive -- and Google has nothing that can match it.

Wolfram Alpha also makes it possible to compare cities in a similar way. If you type in Hamburg and San Francisco, for example, Wolfram Alpha doesn't just compare population statistics -- it also shows the distance between the cities, flight times and local times.

Economy -- Nice Comparisons, Shame about the Sources

When it comes to comparing clearly defined numerical variables, Wolfram Alpha shines. With the search inquiry "Nokia vs Motorola," you can directly compare revenue figures, number of employees and the like. Google's top result for the same query is a blog entry from 2006, which poses the question: "Nokia vs. Motorola: Who's the Boss?" -- but doesn't answer it.

With similar comparative queries, it's possibe to use Wolfram Alpha to view the circulation statistics of various US newspapers. In a comparison of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, the US capital's daily paper ranks the lowest, though exact information as to the time frame for the statistics is missing -- rendering these nicely presented numbers useless for any journalistic, scientific or other professional purpose. Circulation statistics can also be shown for individual publications -- but unfortunately these also leave out any useful time elements.

Similar comparisons of viewer numbers for US television channels are not possible with Wolfram Alpha. The search engine didn't understand a request for "CNN vs CBS (TV)" and interpreted CNN as "Caledonian Trust," a British property company.

The search engine also struggles with other economic topics. A search of "Germany import value vs export value" does indeed result in a comparison of the two values. However, Wolfram Alpha reveals that the figure for exports is a "2007 estimate" -- and the imports figure has no date attached to it at all. The source of the information, which can be useful when figuring out who is doing the estimating, is not available. A search of the same query for US values provides the same results. A disappointing performance.

Comparing Computers -- Macs = Lubricants

Questions about the Internet and technology make it even more apparent how much the approaches of Google and Wolfram Alpha differ. Wolfram Alpha answers a search query for the terms "Microsoft" and "Google" with a detailed chart that compares the financial data of both companies and tracks their market performance. Google's search mechanisms direct the query to a Google homepage in the style of Windows XP. Someone had fun setting that one up. The actual search results, with online articles and press releases, are below the new search box.

A Google search for the ratio of Macs to PCs and sales figures for Apple computers results in an overwhelming cornucopia of both facts and entertainment, including television commercials and customer surveys. Concrete information about how many of the Apple computers that have been sold are still in use is unavailable -- as it is with Wolfram Alpha, as well. The search engine interprets the term "Macs" as an abbreviation for a type of technical lubricant from the chemical group of "multiply alkylated cyclopentanes" and provides the physical data for that group of elements. Nice, but wrong.

Wolfram Alpha is in top form, though, when asked about computer devices in the search "Bits, Bytes, Mebibytes and Gibibytes." Google once again lists a Wikipedia article on top, but just below it is a link to a site that provides an overview and comparison of the different storage capacities for various units.

Wolfram Alpha generates an overview page with conversion tables, proportional representations and similar calculations -- which is quite impressive for people who are especially interested in those things. Still, if you're looking for a simple overview of old and new measurement units, Google is the better place to go.

Celebrities -- What Does Angela Dorothea Kasner Do?

When it comes to celebrities and famous people, the results from Google and Wolfram Alpha vary widely. A few examples:

Wolfram Alpha answers a query about German Chancellor Angela Merkel very pragmatically. She was born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1950s Hamburg and now works as a politician. No other facts are provided -- neither the political party she belongs to nor the office she currently holds. The fact that she is Germany's leading statesperson can only be discovered by going to the Wikipedia article displayed next to the search results. Google's first result is the same article, but the second entry listed is for Merkel's homepage, followed by governmental and news pages.

Things get really bleak when the search turns to Carrie Prejean, the current Miss California. Google correctly displays a list of current news pieces about the controversial beauty queen first as well as providing photos and videos of her on its results page. Wolfram Alpha doesn't recognize Prejean. Instead, it just shortens her name to Carrie and supplies statistical data about the number of women who share that name in the United States.

The site is not much more successful when searching the names Steve, Larry and Sergey. All three at once is too much for Wolfram Alpha. A search limited to just the first two reveals that, in the US, there are 201,739 Steves and 701,582 Larrys. Google goes about the search in an entirely different way; its results reveal pages about Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, either in combination with Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer.

Science -- Everything about Aspirin

Wolfram Alpha answers scientific queries brilliantly -- but without devoting much time to explanations. In response to a search request about the refractive index -- that is, an optical characteristic -- of water, Wolfram picks out the correct numerical value: 1.333. On the other hand, Google provides over 781,000 Web sites on the same topic. At the top of the entries is a Wikipedia article listing refractive indices of different elements, which requires a person to briefly search for water's value.

A similar picture results when searching for the density of water. Wolfram delivers not only the numerical value, but also a list of conversions into other units -- as well as a few comparisons with the density of the human body and even a phase diagram. For once, Google doesn't rely on Wikipedia but, instead, turns to a British site with conversion tables as its first entry. The Web site provides not only the density of water, but also several other pieces of water-related information.

Einstein's famous theory of mass-energy equivalence: Wolfram Alpha provides wonderful information when it comes to mathematical and scientific queries.

Einstein's famous theory of mass-energy equivalence: Wolfram Alpha provides wonderful information when it comes to mathematical and scientific queries.

But a search for the medication Aspirin really allows Wolfram Alpha to show off its full strength. Spatial models of the molecular structure of the active ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid, are displayed next to well-organized chemical and structural formulas. The only thing missing is an explanation of what the substance is actually used for. Google provides this information -- not just with a Wikipedia entry, but also with a direct link to the product's official Web site.

Culture -- Who on Earth is "Star Trek"?

Wolfram Alpha doesn't have much success when it comes to cultural topics. The search engine can't even answer classically nerdy queries to very much satisfaction.

A search for the number of episodes filmed for the first Star Trek television series only results in information about some -- but not all -- of the Star Trek movies. Still, in typical Wolfram style, this information is accompanied by details such as film length, box-office earnings and the names of the films' directors. Google, on the other hand, leads to an entry from Wikianswers listing the total number of episodes in the Star Trek universe -- a whopping 617. You can only get more details by going to a Wikipedia article that lists the respective episodes for the "Next Generation," "Voyager" and other series.

Google responds to a search for "Kurt Cobain" and "MTV" with a photo gallery of the Nirvana singer as well as an MTV Web site with information about the band -- and the unavoidable YouTube videos of their "Unplugged" performance. Wolfram Alpha, however, provides only dry facts about Cobain, including his full name as well as when and where he died. At the same time, though, to the right of the search results, there is a link to Cobain's Wikipedia entry.

Sports -- The Olympics? Never Heard of It

Still, Wolfram Alpha does know a little something about baseball. When asked to compare the New York Yankees with the Boston Red Sox, the search engine reveals who won the World Series in various years. The results for the individual teams also display the number of games won and lost in each year. Searches for "Olympic medals" or just for the "Olympic Games" come up empty, though. You only get the message: "Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input."

The first result in a Google search for "Olympic games medals" leads to a page that lists the medals won by each country -- but without information related to the time frame or the source of the statistics.

Conclusion -- Strong Design, Weak Database

In demonstrations, the Wolfram Alpha software handles information in a very impressive way. The search engine is able to manipulate data in order to create more information. For example, automatically creating statistical comparisons from the simple input of multiple countries is something that neither Google nor any of the other search engines available today can do. Wolfram Alpha functions wonderfully when it comes to processing information.

But its current beta version only rarely manages to do this well. Wolfram Alpha only works well when the associated databases already have the data they need. For example, a search for viewer figures for US television channels is not something the search engine understands.

Wolfram Alpha has the feel of a tool created by scientists for other scientists. In fact, when asked certain technical and scientific questions, it can deliver marvellously detailed answers.

But, with certain economic topics, for example, the quality of the presented results is questionable. What good, for example, are circulation numbers for daily newspapers if you don't also provide information about the time frame? This is numerical information -- and just the sort of data that Wolfram Alpha is good at. But, judging from the breadth of the database and the quality of the data processing, the developers seem to have placed much more value on certain areas of knowledge than on others -- leaving out many useful economic, political and cultural facts.

This could be excused as a necessary limitation, and perhaps the entire project should be appreciated for showing new possibilities in data processing. But, either way, it's still difficult to explain why Wolfram Alpha occasionally delivers odd results without listed sources (such as when it searches for languages spoken in Germany). How can you trust an information processor that sometimes spits out results you don't understand, doesn't explain how it came to these answers and doesn't reveal its sources?

At its current stage of development, Wolfram Alpha puts on an impressive show. This software can do a hell of a lot. But as an everyday search tool, it still has a good way to go.

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