A new web application called Wolfram|Alpha looks like Google but is far scarier in its implications for humanity's future. Developers say it will "provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries." A single source of definitive answers? What could go wrong?
Wolfram|Alpha is making geeks across the world swoon, but maybe we should be just a little wary of any software that promises to become the repository of all knowledge, and then the analyzer of that knowledge on top of that. Go to the Wolfram|Alpha site and check it out. Just plug in a question or term, and it will provide you with what it believes is a factual answer. Places and companies get good results. But you'll get nothing but a confused output if you ask, "What is the air flight velocity of an African swallow?"
Here's what Wolfram|Alpha's creators have to say about their nascent mega-brain:
Wolfram|Alpha's long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything . . . Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.
OK, knowledge to the masses - sounds good. Turning everything into something computable . . . sounds Matrixy. Serve as a knowledge engine . . . sounds like the computer in THX 1138. Not good, people, not good.
I want a computer that can help me understand the world, but one that analyzes complex information FOR me? Especially information about culture and language, two areas that are notoriously ambiguous? I'm not so sure.
And here's where things get truly hair-raising. Wolfram|Alpha has a plan. In a section called "the future," the developers write:
Wolfram|Alpha was made possible in part by the achievements of [computing software] Mathematica and A New Kind of Science (NKS). In their different ways, both of these point to far-reaching future opportunities for Wolfram|Alpha-whether a radically new kind of programming or the systematic automation of invention and discovery.
Wolfram|Alpha is being introduced first in the form of the wolframalpha.com website. But Wolfram|Alpha is really a technology and a platform that can be used and presented in many different ways. Among short-term plans are developer APIs, professional and corporate versions, custom versions for internal data, connections with other forms of content, and deployment on emerging mobile and other platforms.
"Automation of invention and discovery"? Hey, invention is what HUMANS do! Plus, I don't want this scary interpreter of all knowledge and inventor of all things on my freakin' Android phone, either. That's basically asking to be nuked.