Tuesday, May 19, 2009

is Wolfram Alpha good for anything???

The much heralded web tool Wolfram Alpha debuted yesterday -- and I completely forgot about it. But today a coworker asked me about it & I kicked into full-blown test mode. Count me as underwhelmed.

Now, one of things which it is supposed to excel at is collecting information or doing calculations. To be glib: it's not a search tool, but a find tool. I've thrown a bunch of queries at it, and have yet to find something really cool.

My first queries were complete duds. Asking for the fastest train time between New York and Chicago yielded a flight time from New York to Chicago usually elicits the "I don't understand you" message, though some wording I've lost gave me a time to a town in Europe called Train.

If you plug in a human gene name, the result is a sort of simplified Entrez gene name query. In some ways it is nice, but in others I found it less than fulfilling. Plug in KRAS and you get an overview of KRAS's genetic structure, but nothing about the fact that certain mutations in this gene are oncogenic. Don't put "gene" in the query and it guesses you mean some airport, though it does suggest the gene as an alternate option. Similarly, if you plug in EGFR, it's disappointing that it doesn't mention any of the important chemotherapeutics which target this.

Calculating things is supposed to be its forte, so I tried a bunch. The first few didn't work well (e.g. how many carbon atoms in human chromosome X), but I do now know where I can convert from millimeters to furlongs. So useful! Or even better, convert 60mph to angstroms per nanosecond -- how did I ever live without this?

One side complaint: Wolfram Alpha seems to be a nearly closed universe. Occasionally it will link out to Wikipedia on the side, but most of the facts it presents are dead ends. So if you think it's wrong, such as below, there's no obvious way to figure out how it figured out what it told you.

Similarly, it could use to explain itself a bit more. I asked it to opine on the most important classification question in the world, and after several attempts "taxonomy of panda" (won't work with "pandas") I get the message "Assuming Ailuropoda melanoleuca | Use Ailurus fulgens instead" -- but nowhere does it give a common name or picture for either of these critters. Curiously, Wolfram Alpha puts "Ailurus fulgens" (the red panda) in with bears, where it definitely doesn't belong. I hadn't kept up with their taxonomy; according to both NCBI & Wikipedia they're now their own branch of carnivores and not in the Raccoon family.

The front page suggests typing in dates. Just putting in a day and month with no year was particularly useless, but other things I put in had curious results. September 11th, 2001 notes that the World Trade Center was destroyed, along with the death of one of the terrorists. December 7th, 1941 yields the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But can you believe that the only significant event it can remember for July 20th, 1969 is the birth of a minor TV actor Josh Holloway? That most glorious day in human technological achievement and it can only find some face-of-the-moment? AIIGGGHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!


CJ said...

Keith - even before Alpha you didn't have to perform those tedious unit conversions manually; Google has been doing them for a long time now. In fact, if you type '60 mph in angstroms per sec' in the Google search box in Firefox, the answer pops up in a tooltip without even having to do the search.


Andrew Clegg said...

Does seem a bit anti-climactic, doesn't it.

There's another interesting review from a scientific perspective at Ars Technica. Many of the same objections...

Keith Robison said...

Nuts! All this time I was converting from Angstroms to cubits using paper and pencil! :-) Thanks for pointing this out -- now I'm even more stumped on WA's novel utility.