Wolfram|Alpha Is Launching: Made Possible by Mathematica

May 15, 2009
shadow
Stephen Wolfram
Posted by

Starting later today, we’ll be launching Wolfram|Alpha (you can see the proceedings on a live webcast).

This is a proud moment for us and for the whole Mathematica community. (We hope the launch goes well!)

Wolfram|Alpha defines a new direction in computing—that would have simply not have been possible without Mathematica, and that in time will add some remarkable new dimensions to Mathematica itself.

In terms of technology, Wolfram|Alpha is a uniquely complex software system, which has been entirely developed and deployed with Mathematica and Mathematica technologies.

We are still at the beginning of Wolfram|Alpha as a long-term project, but already it contains nearly 6 million lines of Mathematica code—all, of course, authored and maintained in Wolfram Workbench.

When we launch Wolfram|Alpha this weekend, it will be running Mathematica on about 10,000 processor cores, using gridMathematica-based parallelism. And every single query that comes into the system will be served with webMathematica.

If you watch the live webcast tonight, you’ll see lots of real-time system analysis, logging, and visualization—all written in Mathematica.

I’ve been thinking about building Wolfram|Alpha for a very long time.

But one of the most important things that’s made it possible now is the state of Mathematica today.

We’ve always thought that Mathematica was an increasingly development environment. But what we’ve done with the development of Wolfram|Alpha in the past few years serves as living proof.

The Mathematica Computable Data Initiative was the testbed for the large-scale data curation system that we’ve set up for Wolfram|Alpha. And this curation system itself relies on many features of Mathematica. We’re importing data in almost every conceivable format using Mathematica‘s import capabilities. We’re combining and analyzing data using Mathematica‘s data, statistics and visualization capabilities. Our human curation and expert review process is done using Mathematica symbolic documents, with extensive dynamic interface capabilities. And our whole central data repository system is written in Mathematica, with symbolic representations of data and its relationships, and efficient underlying use of DatabaseLink for relevant large and real-time datasets.

Already in Mathematica 7 we’ve integrated many kinds of data seamlessly into the Mathematica language. And within Mathematica it’s possible to do arbitrarily flexible large-scale computations with the data. Wolfram|Alpha adds tremendous ease of use for small-scale computations—as well as introducing a large number of new types of data, which can potentially be accessed for large-scale computation in Mathematica in the future.

Beyond curated data, another important aspect of Wolfram|Alpha is its ability to actually do computations. In building Wolfram|Alpha, we’ve been systematically implementing all the methods and models of science and other areas whether quantitative approaches can be used. This is of course an immense undertaking, and without Mathematica it would have been impossible.

The coherent symbolic structure of Mathematica is crucial to constructing the frameworks that make the programming even vaguely conceivable. And in the actual implements of so many models and methods, we’re using practically every corner of Mathematica‘s huge web of algorithmic capabilities.

Often there may be some simple approximation that could be implemented just as a formula. But because we have Mathematica, we can do the real computation—and get real state-of-the-art results, solving differential equations, performing global optimizations, and doing whatever sophisticated math or computations are needed.

One of the highly visible features of Wolfram|Alpha is its ability to understand free-form linguistic input. And this too would have been impossible without Mathematica.

There are many parts to Wolfram|Alpha’s linguistic processing system. But one common theme is the deep use of symbolic programming and Mathematica‘s unique symbolic pattern-matching capabilities. And here again the immediate access to efficient algorithms is also crucial—whether it be for string processing, discrete math or something else. (Who knew that parsing nested sequences of |’s is best done with efficient linear programming?)

Yet another central aspect of Wolfram|Alpha is its automated presentation of results. And here again, many parts of Mathematica play crucial roles.

Every output from Wolfram|Alpha is constructed by the Wolfram|Alpha server as a Mathematica notebook. The ability to automatically typeset tables, math and collections of graphics of unknown sizes and shapes is crucial.

And the automatic computational aesthetics built into Mathematica are what have made it practical to implement thousands of different kinds of visualizations in Wolfram|Alpha.

If one looks at the internal code of Wolfram|Alpha, it’s amazing how diverse the uses of Mathematica are. Two principles bring it all together.

The first is the symbolic character of Mathematica—which makes it possible to implement so many diverse kinds of knowledge in a unified way, and have them successfully interact with each other.

The second is automation—the idea that functions in Mathematica should be as automated as possible—automatically selecting algorithms, choosing visualizations, working out import formats, and so on. Because automation is what makes it feasible to create a robust system of the magnitude and functionality of Wolfram|Alpha with manageable resources.

And even beyond the actual user-visible functionality of Wolfram|Alpha, Mathematica has been crucial in the project.

All of the many automated testing systems for Wolfram|Alpha are written in Mathematica—and rely on such diverse capabilities as parallel computation, symbolic structure comparison, and bitmap image manipulation.

Mathematica has been extensively used in meta-analysis of the code base and of the development process itself. And for example the ability to easily create complex interactive algorithmic diagrams—say to represent stages in linguistic processing—has been crucial.

So Mathematica is what’s inside Wolfram|Alpha—and what’s made Wolfram|Alpha possible.

But how will Wolfram|Alpha interact with Mathematica?

There are several ways.

First, at the bottom of each Wolfram|Alpha output page, there’s a button that says “Download Live Mathematica“.

An example of the download link

What that does is to download the results on the page as a Mathematica notebook.

Wolfram|Alpha screenshot

The Mathematica notebook has many immediate advantages over Wolfram|Alpha’s standard web presentation.

First, the graphics are resolution-independent and resizable. And 3D graphics can immediately be zoomed and rotated.

But what’s more important is that you can take the output from Wolfram|Alpha and actually compute with it in Mathematica.

And you can also click the Use Input button on particular Wolfram|Alpha output pods in the notebook, and get Mathematica input that would generate the basic output in the pod.

In fact, in a sense, Wolfram|Alpha is the ultimate “discovery interface” for Mathematica. If you want to know what how to refer to something in CountryData, just enter it in free-form linguistics in Wolfram|Alpha, and Wolfram|Alpha will show you the precise Mathematica syntax for what you want.

One way to see the Mathematica code is to get the Live Mathematica Notebook.

But if you just want to know the Mathematica code for a particular Wolfram|Alpha output pod, you can click on the pod and look at the popup.

So long as there’s a simple representation of the pod computation in Mathematica, there’ll be a “Mathematica plaintext input” field in the popup—that you can copy and paste anywhere. (Notice also the links to Mathematica function information in the right sidebar.)

Example of copyable text

So if you ever forget how to specify a computation in Mathematica, you can just go to Wolfram|Alpha and enter the computation in free form, using any kind of natural notation or language.

Needless to say, I’m sure this capability will be important when people are first learning Mathematica—and it’s one of the things future versions of Mathematica will be able to call on Wolfram|Alpha to do.

In a sense, Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha take opposite positions in the representation of computation.

Wolfram|Alpha is set up to have short one-off inputs, that can sloppily mix all sorts of notations with fragments of natural language. And Wolfram|Alpha then works by using its linguistic processing capabilities to figure out what the most likely meaning of the input is.

Mathematica, on the other hand, is set up to be a precise, coherent, consistent system, where inputs follow clear general principles—and can combined in completely arbitrary ways, to build up programs of arbitrary complexity, like the nearly 6 million lines of Wolfram|Alpha’s own code base.

Over the next few years, I suspect some of the most dramatic and unexpected advances will come from combining the Wolfram|Alpha and the Mathematica views of computation.

Wolfram|Alpha will soon support an API, and Mathematica will probably be its richest client.

But as we imagine the future of Mathematica symbolic notebook interfaces and local computation, interacting with large-scale central Wolfram|Alpha servers and the breadth of Wolfram|Alpha’s capabilities, the possibilities are quite spectacular.

Wolfram|Alpha introduces a concept of knowledge-based computing—that builds on Mathematica, and then provides remarkable new power for Mathematica itself.

If the past is a guide, it’ll be quite a few years before we understand the full implications of all these possibilities.

But as of now—today—it’s exciting to see just what we have been able to build in Wolfram|Alpha with Mathematica.

And quite soon, well over 10,000 Mathematicas will be running on our compute servers to launch what’s probably the most complex and computation intensive website ever.

And begin the next phase in the evolution of computing—all made possible by Mathematica.

63 Comments

Why hasn’t the webcast started yet?

Posted by Saeran May 15, 2009 at 2:12 pm

This is a very exciting project and I wish you and your team the very best of luck with this weekend’s launch.

Posted by Mark - UK May 15, 2009 at 2:17 pm

I cannot wait any longer to see it….

Posted by Eric May 15, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Just how scary is this?

Posted by Harry Perkins May 15, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Very exciting, looking forward to working with the product.

Posted by Todd Schmiedeke May 15, 2009 at 2:24 pm

I wish you good luck, and hope everything will go right!

Posted by Florent May 15, 2009 at 2:32 pm

After seeing the demo, I said out loud to myself “The world has just changed!” This is beyond my wildest dreams! Congratulations and thank you.

Posted by Phill Almes May 15, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Outstanding blog entry. Your passion for this project comes through in each W|A blog entry and videocast you have posted. It truly feels like a new paradigm-shifting technology is being born, and we are all given a front-row seat to its birth. Will history remember this moment 100 years from? It surely doesn’t seem out of the question.

Posted by Scott May 15, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I wish all the team good luck with the launch! That represents a very good user story of Mathematica tecnology.

Posted by Antonio Molina May 15, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Where do I login to use the service?

Posted by Sujay May 15, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Great I like it very much!

Posted by Pieter May 15, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Thanks for sharing this launch, an amazing project.

Posted by Jeff May 15, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Wow! This is an amazing website. I hope everything goes more or less smoothly for you, and I can see this really taking off in a big way! Good luck!

Posted by Stephen May 15, 2009 at 3:26 pm

If your article today is to be believed, the leap in man-machine interface is enormous. While I have no idea how this gargantuan project has been funded, if it is successful, the world will benefit enormously and be willing to support future development with a gread deal of resources.

Posted by Rex Costanzo May 15, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Good luck,

Posted by Thaya May 15, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Good luck!!!!

Posted by Mariano May 15, 2009 at 3:32 pm

When it will be launched?
8PM ET

I am so feakin exited that i can not wait…………. i want to use this now……..

Posted by Masud May 15, 2009 at 3:34 pm

This looks excellent! Can’t wait to try it.

Posted by Nakul May 15, 2009 at 3:38 pm

I am blown away by the possibilities, and can’t wait to get my hands on this!!

Posted by Robert Praul May 15, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Dr. Wolfram,

To your surprise that more web news is not available for this historic event, I think you may need a marketing pro who can move this along as a sustainable and evolving success.

If you agree, contact info is kcorbino@juno.com

Posted by Armando May 15, 2009 at 3:41 pm

It worked just now for a while!!! Honestly I could see examples and their results.

Posted by Kosma May 15, 2009 at 3:42 pm

good work.عمل رائع.bon travail. & good luck 4 u.

Posted by hkove May 15, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Good luck everyone.
Admirers from Germany are very excited to what will be going on.
Let it think! Let us know!

Posted by Toby May 15, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Amazing project! Good luck from Germany!

Posted by Peter May 15, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Amazing, NKS goes practical thing !

Posted by Jaume Teixi May 15, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Hello Team,

This will be a new History marking point I am glad to be a part of it I wish the whole team lots of success

Erik
Netherlands

Posted by Erik May 15, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Biggest thing to happen to the web in regards to data discovery and manipulation. The future will be here within 24 hours, all the other “dumb input boxes” starting with G, Y and M will be left in Mathematica’s dust.

Wishing you all the best with the launch, and i hope 10,000 cores will slice through the loads.. This must be fairly computationally expensive so fingers crossed.

Go WA!

Posted by Taree May 15, 2009 at 4:09 pm

I’m really looking forward to the launch!! Can’t wait to try it out and see what I can do. I’ve already wrote down some sample query’s that Google wasn’t too helpful with so I can test them out here.

Posted by JD May 15, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Hello Im from Buenos Aires Argentina, I want to tell the team that everyone here are wating for this incredible thing. I hope everything will be all right thank you!!

PD> in which time does it begin on argentina_

Posted by Nicolas Izurrategui May 15, 2009 at 4:17 pm

here from morocco i wait, kurosagi_@hotmail.fr,preparing questions hhhh

Posted by hkove May 15, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Sounds great! Best of luck with the launch and I can’t wait to try it. Let’s hope, however, that Wolfram Alpha doesn’t link up with Guardian and cause all sorts of trouble . . . ;-)

Posted by Mark Warrian May 15, 2009 at 4:35 pm

I just watched your demonstration and I can’t wait to start using it, WOW.

One question I have is in relation to the part of the demonstration where you queried the name andrew and got some information and you then added the name paul and got a comparison of data about the two names.

What if I was looking for information about someone named Andrew Paul?

Thanks

Posted by Peter May 15, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Good luck from Romania !!! We are waiting …awake ! :)

Posted by Ionut Danet May 15, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Good Luck !! It really ROCKS !!.Just seen the video -very much impressed :)

Posted by sethuram May 15, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Any news of when this is going to happen?

Posted by Andy S May 15, 2009 at 4:48 pm

As scientist, I don’t have second thoughts that, starting from this night, Wolfram Alpha has the potential in becoming in the number 1 site to be consulted by the whole scientific community in the world. I wish you the best of lucks in :
* handling the immense load that the site will receive
* putting all that dispersed science in one single entity
* having a sustainable business model
* and for the tons of prizes that this tremendous work should deserve for the next years

To all the Wolfram team and its partners, please accept my sincere felicitations and my full recognition for your wonderful work

Sam

Posted by Sam May 15, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Will we be able to watch the webcast as video if we don’t watch it live?

Posted by Brian Gilbert May 15, 2009 at 5:08 pm

How do we know that you don’t have a room full of knowledgeable people to answer our questions? It sounds like we will not be able to tell! Good Luck

Posted by Martin Perrett May 15, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Is this all just a bit overhyped?

Posted by Kevin May 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm

As i can understand, it’ll be released at 12.00am GMT. Am I right?

Posted by Joakim May 15, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Best wishes from Croatia as well!

Posted by Leo May 15, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Just watched the demo and I can not wait to see the finished (well, ‘started’ I guess I should say) product in action. I really believe this has the potential to revolutionize the way humans interact with computers.
I can’t begin to imagine the work that went in to this and appreciate you and your team opening up this tool for the public. Hope your processors can handle the load!!!!

Posted by Luke from California May 15, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Sin lugar a dudas Wolfram – Alpha va a revolucionar completamente la forma como se busca información en internet.en la medida en que permitirá utilizar un lenguaje semántico y mostrará resultados que integran y potencializan el conocimiento humano.

Les deseo la mejor de las suertes.

Posted by Frat Quintero May 15, 2009 at 5:27 pm

At 7 P.M CST

Posted by sethuram May 15, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Good luck from Moldova! I hope your service will be better than google!

Posted by Victor Antofica May 15, 2009 at 5:42 pm

If you need to reduce the load you could delay answering questions until the questioner had chosen from any alternatives.

Posted by Brian Gilbert May 15, 2009 at 5:42 pm

thank you Stephen Wolfram and team Wolfram Alpha for building this internet technology.

- jason nadaf

Posted by jasonspalace May 15, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Good luck from Belarus! Congratulations and thank you! :)

Posted by Paul May 15, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Outstanding !!! So out of the ordinary that I can’t wait to see this going on. As another person just posted, I think this is an historical event: the world as we know it is changing for ever with this kind of tool. Best of wishes from Argentina

Posted by Juan Gulin May 15, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Having launched a few websites in my time, you guys are totally nuts. The goal of a website launch is to have a gradual ramp-up in traffic so that any problems aren’t catastrophic.

Having a deliberate high-profile public launch like this, on camera?! Either your engineers are inexperienced, or were incapable of talking sense to whoever decided to do a launch this way.

Posted by Ian Clarke May 15, 2009 at 6:45 pm

cmon hit the switch, it’s getting late here in the Netherlands (01.44)

Posted by sander idzerda May 15, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Herald technology headlines today

Google service stumbles

Wolfram Alpha – the web search acid test

Premonitory?

Posted by matti newcannon May 15, 2009 at 6:50 pm

I want to have Wolfram Alpha’s baby!

Posted by jamaa May 15, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Has it started yet? I can’t do anything with it yet.

Posted by eck muttox May 15, 2009 at 7:51 pm

OK – So it is really clever and does all these wonderful things
But only if you let us use it

Are you going to turn it on?

Posted by Ric Baker May 15, 2009 at 7:53 pm

All I can search for is “Launching May 2009…”

Posted by Impatient May 15, 2009 at 8:20 pm

Wow, thanks to Wolfram Alpha I can quit my job, divorce my wife, sell all my possessions, shave my entire body, gain that frontal lobotomy I’ve always wanted, and become one with the computer!

Posted by Mordechai May 15, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Hi All,

I just tried Wolframaalpha.com, this is my notes:

1) I will see to Google: do not worry, it is less than what we expect.
2) This is NOT a search engine, I think they need to call it something else
3) I did not get what I expect, all I got when I search for “google” is : financial information
4) Very Slowwwwwwwwwwwww
5) So, all I get when I search for “google” is one page!!!!!!
6) It is sucks

Posted by Ammar May 15, 2009 at 11:01 pm

To Ammar: Nobody every pretended this is a search engine or a Google killer – it’s a computation engine. I’d expected more in terms of finding pure facts of information – often information is already there but it’s well hidden – this seems to mainly a problem of the query parser – but there’s an enourmous potential here.

Posted by Markus Peter May 16, 2009 at 4:26 am

Hello,
I think we are in front of a huge step forward in the history of computing. Thank you to all the team for the deep of my hearth for making this possible. I will show this to my kids and explain them the importance of this moment. Please keep doing your incredible work!

Posted by MBar May 16, 2009 at 4:50 am

Actually, when I click on download Live Mathematica nothing happens. A small popup appears and disappears and that’s it.

Posted by robert May 16, 2009 at 6:11 am

[...] Mathematica in his courses. So when he heard Wolfram Research was launching Wolfram|Alpha, which is built on Mathematica, he knew it would become a major resource for engaging students in [...]