Monday, June 13, 2011

Wolfram Alpha and 42

Yesterday, I read an article (in the Economist) about Stephen Wolfram, his 'new kind of science (NKS)' and Wolfram Alpha. I decided to go check out his computational knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha: that is what he claims, that unlike search engines which merely collate data that already exists, Wolfram Alpha takes existing data and computes original data in response to queries. So, I typed in 'GDP of India vs GDP of China', and yes, it responded with a fairly detailed comparison including graphs; I wasn't convinced, all that information probably existed already. I entered a few more queries, and finally when I typed in International Space Station, the result convinced me: it really was computing in real time, it gave me the position of the ISS with respect to my location, and it changed every time I submitted the query. I typed in 'Warangal to Delhi', and in addition to the distance, it actually gave me the time sound and light would take to travel the distance. I had seen specific computational engines before (like Google Map), but a general computational engine, this was the first time.

I was blown away. I immediately thought of Hitchhikers's Guide to the Galaxy, and the quest of the pan-dimensional beings (mice, that is) to build a computer that could answer the ultimate question. And here was one. So, I typed in 'the answer to life, universe and everything': the answer was 42. I will always remember that as one of most hilarious moments of my life. I do not know if it is a joke by the programmers or if Wolfram Alpha itself arrived on that answer after searching through Douglas Adam's book, but it definitely made my day. 

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