Stephen Wolfram announced a couple of days ago in a blog post that he and his team will soon unveil a new online computational knowledge engine called
Wolfram Alpha that will be able to answer questions posed to it in natural language. If successful, this would be the holly grail of computational intelligence for no other reason that questions posed in natural language could be directly answered by the system as opposed to simply returning online documents that might include the answer; the latter is the way that Internet search engines such as Google work.
Granted, for some questions, Google is very capable of directly giving answers such as for example asking “what is the population of China?” But whereas Google’s answers are likely found in some online document that directly answers the query, Wolfram Alpha will compute the answer by deriving it from its computational knowledge base. In other words, Wolfram Alpha will be able to derive new facts from known facts and a set of rules. This is what Artificial Intelligence researchers have dreamed of being able to do for more than 50 years.
Many details of how Wolfram Alpha is going to work were not provided in Stephen Wolfram’s blog post. In just a few sentences, this is how he describes the inner workings of the computational knowledge engine,
So how can we deal with that? Well, some people have thought the way forward must be to somehow automatically understand the natural language that exists on the web. Perhaps getting the web semantically tagged to make that easier.
But armed with Mathematica and NKS (New Kind of Science) I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable.
It’s not easy to do this. Every different kind of method and model—and data—has its own special features and character. But with a mixture of Mathematica and NKS automation, and a lot of human experts, I’m happy to say that we’ve gotten a very long way.
I wasn’t at all sure it was going to work. But I’m happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we’re actually managing to make it work.
You can read the Wolfram’s entire post here.
Wolfram Alpha will go online in May of 2009, just 2 months from now. I am looking forward to it. I don’t expect it to be perfect but I trust those people with access to the alpha version who say that it works very well. The only thing I have to figure out over the next two months is what to ask it when I finally get my chance. Maybe the answer to my question will be 42.