Wolfram|Alpha Developers Answer Your Questions
During the holidays we posted “New Features in Wolfram|Alpha: Year-End Update” highlighting some of the most notable datasets and enhancements added to Wolfram|Alpha since its launch this past May. We are thrilled by the questions and feedback many of you posted in the comments section. Your feedback is incredibly valuable to the development of Wolfram|Alpha. Many of the additions presented in the post were the result of previous suggestions from Wolfram|Alpha users.
We hope to continue this dialogue as we update Wolfram|Alpha’s ever-growing knowledge base in 2010. You wrote 170-plus comments to the “Year-End Update” post, and we’ve sent questions from those comments to Wolfram|Alpha’s developers and domain experts for answers. We’ll be reporting their responses in a series of blog posts.
So without further ado…
Q: Wonderful to hear about, yet my regular challenge raises its head again. I type in “plasma physics” and get a definition—but nothing more. I type in “plasma temperatures”, “gas plasma”, “ionized gas” and get nothing. I applaud the notion of making sure Wolfram|Alpha has information relevant to the public interest (ecology, environment, employment, salaries, cost of living, and all that), but you’re missing an entire branch of physics and an entire state of matter. I’d love to compute, for example, the temperature of a certain firework as it explodes, and then relate that to whether the chemicals within have been heated to plasma or are simply burning brightly, and which additives burn the longest (and thus have more chance of landing on the audience while still hot). Pure exploration of data based on something cool and pretty.
On the other hand, the more you add, the more holes you’ll find as people search and then become frustrated when specific things they want aren’t available. Please keep tracking your “cannot find” results!
A: Although we haven’t yet covered every possible domain of knowledge, that’s certainly our goal—and feedback like yours is definitely considered and added to our “to-do” list. Each time a query produces one of those “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure how to compute an answer from your input” messages, it shows up in our logs. Sometimes we have the data, but need to tweak Wolfram|Alpha’s linguistic code so it recognizes more types of questions. If we don’t have the data, someone looks closely at your question and at sources that might be able to answer such questions, and more often than not those sources are incorporated into our planning. Many of the features mentioned in our year-end review were direct responses to user requests, and many more are in the works.
Q: I have just downloaded W/A for iPhone, but haven’t had much chance to try it yet. Two questions:
1. My first query to W/A, about Olympic marathon winners, failed “Could not connect to a W/A server” or something like that. I thought the point of the downloaded version was to free you from wi fi restrictions.
2. Given the ever changing nature of knowledge and your impressive programme of developments, can iPhone customers expect updates in the future?
A: As we’ve noted before, the iPhone and iPod touch are terrific platforms, but they simply aren’t powerful enough to solve many queries in a reasonable amount of time, if at all; the Wolfram|Alpha App for the iPhone does require an internet connection. Users of the app will therefore benefit from all the same data and algorithm updates that are added weekly to the main Wolfram|Alpha website, as well as ongoing bug fixes and enhancements to the app itself.
Q: Nice that you keep adding data and computation features, but they are of no use if one can’t access them. When will you work on the user interface?
As an example, I’m trying to place the deepest point of earth on a map. The best query I’ve got (through too many iterations of trial/error and “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure how to compute an answer from your input”) is:
“map of the coordinates of the deepest point of the pacific ocean”
If you change it to “map of the coordinates of the deepest point of the deepest ocean”, it fails.
When will you publish some kind of API that lets us choose WHAT we want to do with our input data, instead of relying on some ambiguous-and-unknown hidden pseudo-natural processing language of a query box?
Or at least a GUI that lets us choose what kind of visualization will be used, and which keeps track of the sub-queries (so that the “deepest ocean” query doesn’t stop working when used inside a larger one).
A: In this case, the main problem isn’t user interface, it’s a lack of data. We’re working on ocean floor features and bathymetric data in Wolfram|Alpha, but at the moment a property like “maximum depth” of a given ocean doesn’t have specific coordinates attached to it.
Your interface suggestions are duly noted, however––and the Wolfram|Alpha API is available now, with other tools coming soon.
How does it do that?
Did you, the developers, enter these answers or does it utilize some kind of human speech recognition based on the synonyms networks?
Also, I got it to crash a few times, sorry about that. Didn’t exploit a bug, so it’s not Wolfram’s fault, I intentionally entered an input that would make it crash.
How does it do “this”:
A: You don’t really want us to reveal ALL our secrets, do you?
Q: Taking into account that CO2 forms less than 0.04% of the atmosphere, and that man-made CO2 accounts for maybe one-sixteenth of plant and animal produced CO2, can we please have some accurate, independent scientific data on global warming.
A: You’re right that “accurate” and “independent” data is hard to find in this field—we are currently working on global climate information, with data representing literally dozens of different sources, sampling methods, and climate models. We’ll start rolling out portions of this data soon, so please keep watching the blog for further announcements.
We’ll continue to address more questions in upcoming posts. In the meantime, we invite you to make comments and suggestions to our team. We’d also like to point you to the Wolfram|Alpha Community site. It is a great resource for talking with others about how you use Wolfram|Alpha, sending bugs and suggestions to us, and creating your own discussion topics.