'Wolfram Alpha' is world's biggest calculator

February 14, 2011 12:08:39 PM PST
Monday, on ABC7, an IBM computer takes on two humans in a special week of television's "Jeopardy."

IBM calls its know-it-all computer "Watson" and now, there is an app for that -- using another computer named "Wolfram Alpha."

Richard Hart reports on the Drive To Discover a computer that can calculate everything.

On Jeopardy, every response is just a word or phrase. "Who is Robert DeNiro?" Or, "What is the Golden Gate Bridge?" That is how IBM's Jeopardy computer responds. But, there is another kind of computer that takes this one step further and answers: How much time would it take a cheetah to RUN the Golden Gate Bridge?

Answer: 1 minute 23 seconds, if it could sustain the effort.

The computer is Wolfram Alpha, accessible from any Web browser. It is not a search engine. A search engine gives you links; Wolfram Alpha gives you answers. It is the world's biggest calculator. Wolfram's Luc Barthelet puts it this way: "We do not search the Web. We do not search Web pages. What we do is answer the questions that people ask through a process that is similar to solving an equation."

Now, there is an app for that, too. Sure, Google will tell you how many calories in a carrot, but it won't tell you how many calories in three carrots (40), how many students per teacher in your school district (17.42 for the San Francisco Unified School District), compare your salary with the salary of a meteorologist (At $34,600, the average journalist earns .4227% of the salary of a meteorologist),or at what time can you see the space station overhead (9:59 p.m. on the Challenge night.)

Teachers are adopting it, such as Shannon Smith in her 4th grade classroom in Illinois. It does calculations using words, but it can solve even the largest mathematical equations. Unlike IBM's behemoth, it can be used anywhere. Wolfram Alpha is new, so it doesn't know everything yet, but neither does the Jeopardy computer. Think of it as Sherlock Holmes to IBM's Watson.

"I think that IBM has found a really nice way to educate people and make people think differently about computers and what computers can do," says Barthelet. "So, I think that the Star Trek computer that we know from science fiction is probably in our future, where we will be able to have a dialogue and maybe argue and converse with the computer."

Will he and others at Wolfram Alpha be watching?

"Absolutely!" he says.

By the way, the answer the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is... 42.

With the next step in computers, Richard Hart, ABC7 News.

Load Comments