The internet has a brain, and its name is Wolfram Alpha.
Rather than simply finding and regurgitating information, this search engine marries, melds, culls, gleans and kneads it, giving you the best possible answer to what you ask.
That, at least, is what makes it unique. Last month, it tried to become just like everyone else by debuting image recognition – an inferior copy of what Google already does quite well.
For now, Wolfram’s ability to read images is, by its own admission, limited, but it is learning. It is this ability to learn, like a brain, that makes the engine useful.
In a speech in 2010, its creator – computer scientist Dr Stephen Wolfram – said he dreamed ever since he was a kid (he published his first scientific paper at the age of 15) of making as much human knowledge as possible “computable”.
“I’d always assumed that to make progress, I’d essentially have to replicate a whole brain,” he said.
Instead, Dr Wolfram gave us this beautiful, geeky guardian of facts. The Stephen Fry of search engines, if you will. The quiz master of the web.
For example, ask it ‘who is Kim Kardashian?’ and you are not greeted by X-rated images of the celebrity in various states of rumptastic undress, but instead a list of factoids, such as her height (1.57 metres), weight (54 kilograms) and middle name (Noel).
“It doesn’t come back with three million searches,” tech futurist Morris Miselowski told The New Daily.
“It comes back with 10 or so facts that are really tuned in to what it is you are looking for.”
To become truly intelligent is the goal.
“What it’s really pushing towards is artificial intelligence. That was always where it was headed – to know more about what we were looking for than we did,” Mr Miselowski said.
This, it seems, is the future.
“Google and the other search engines are very much heading in that direction,” he said.
“We’ll come to a time very quickly where search engines as we know them will be old and antiquated and we’ll wonder how we ever bothered with a million different answers to something.”
Wolfram Alpha works by using “very sophisticated algorithms” to pull together information from reliable sources, said University of Technology Sydney senior lecturer Maureen Henninger, an information retrieval expert.
“It’s a terrific search engine for facts and computation,” Ms Henninger said.
“I use it all the time for when I want a fact, an actual fact.
“Whereas if you use Google, it’s going to do a whole lot of personalised searching and contextualising according to your comfort zone, and so on.”
Here are some of the cool things it can do.
Generate a new login
Type in ‘create password’ and fiddle with the options that appear to save yourself the headache of inventing one.
Type in ‘poker hand probabilities’ to find out your chances of winning your bet.
Track satellites in real time
Type in ‘International Space Station’ to find out over what part of the Earth the research facility is currently hovering.
Can you remember part of a word, but not the whole thing? Just type in the bits you remember and fill in the bits you don’t with a line.
For example, ‘_cious’ returns just one result: ‘vicious’.
Plan your exercise regime
Type in something like ’30 min walk calories’ and Wolfram will tell you how many calories you can expect to burn, depending on factors like your speed, gender and weight.
Not quite in the metaphysical sense. But type in ‘where am i?’ and Wolfram will use your IP address to calculate just that.
Want to quickly compare the ranking and traffic of two websites? Type both addresses into the search bar with “vs” in between and you’ll have the answer.
Blood alcohol level
Enter your weight, gender, drinks consumed (if you can remember), time you consumed them in and you’ll get your reading.
Detailed nutritional information for a massive variety of foods, meals and products.
Know what to expect at the doctor
The search engine will use data to predict what kind or brand of medication you’ll be prescribed for certain conditions.
What is $10 dollars in 1920 worth today?
Go to any point in time with any amount of money and find out how the dollar has changed through history.
Compare man-made structures
This includes their size, features and little-known details.
Google vs Wolfram Alpha
Want to compare the 2009 Star Trek movie with the original Star Wars? We tried on WolframAlpha:
And then Google – with dramatically less accuracy: