WolframAlpha: The Answer Engine


When I was studying mathematics at the University of Puget Sound in the early 1990s my professors were extremely excited about a newly purchased, and quite expensive software program called Mathematica.  There were only a few copies available to our department, but when I got my hands on one I immediately recognized the power of Mathematica as a teaching tool.  You could type in a complex function, press a button and voila, there was a graphic representation in two or three dimensions.  Then you could tweak the function slightly by raising it to third power or taking the derivative and the modified graph would emerge.  For the first time I began to visualize the functions I was working with.  It’s hard to describe in words the advantage this new visual mindset afforded me when it came to mathematical comprehension and problem solving.

The intellectual force behind Mathematica was Stephen Worlfram.  So when I came across an article  yesterday in the New York Times about a new search engine called WolframAlphathat actually answers your questions, I took notice.   Most search engines point you to the most relevant websites for a particular query based on the number of other pages that link to the website.  Traditional search works great if I’m researching a generic topic like “The State of Oregon” or “IBM.”  But what if I want to know the average temperature in Oregon during the month of May? Or the sales per employee at IBM over the past 10 years?  A typical search engine like Google will take you to a few general sources on Oregon or IBM where I could then do some digging to hopefully find the answer I’m looking for.   WolfrmAlpha aims to provide the exact answer.  They do  this by tapping into a large knowledge-base of information using sophisticated  tools and search algorithms (some of which are built on the mathematica platform), to find specific answers to questions.

I don’t know if WolframAlpha is the search engine that is going to crack the code on answering specific questions, but at some point we will create such a solution and it will have a profound effect on how we use information.

In the future, finding and displaying information will not be a problem.  However, truly understanding information, recognizing trends in the data, connecting the dots from various sources and generating new ideas and innovative approaches; these are the skills that will be truly valued in leaders.  In the past, people were valued for carrying around vast amounts of data in their heads so they could answer obscure questions quickly.  WolframAlpha is democratizing this information so it is available to everyone.

As we think about developing the next generation of leaders we must create new methods and learning activities to teach these analytical skills.  It is the ability to understand information and recognize trends that will set great leaders apart from the rest.

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