Wolfram Alpha and Google

Two important happenings yesterday.

(1) There was a Google outage that lasted about two hours, no Google search, no Gmail, no Google calendars, no Google docs. Personally, it didn’t affect me and I was working during the period the outage apparently took place.

Wired reported on the outage and showed that ISP internet activity plummeted.

(2) Wolfram Alpha – the so-called Google Killer – did a soft launch at 19h00 CST on Friday. There was much fanfare and the full launch happens Monday. W-A comes from the creators of the incredible Mathematica program and is, they say, set to change the way we search as it understands natural language searches and uses knowledge rather than simply recognizing keywords to present much more useful results than are possible with a simple search engine like Google.

But, the point is if Google essentially has what looks like a monopoly grip on the internet (see point 1) and there’s no way anyone is going to start saying, “I Wolfram Alpha’d it”, then is Wolfram Alpha ever likely to be a Google Killer outside the niche sphere of people who know about things like Mathematica, academic research types and the like?

Of course, comparing Wolfram Alpha with Google is like comparing apples and oranges, they’re so different and have different purposes…but they are both, nevertheless, fruit, it’s not as if I’m comparing the relative merits of chalk and cheese.

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 build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.

Anyway, I’ve heard that W-A knows a little about some things but not much about others. I wanted to check a simple but complex fact: how many humans have ever lived. I tried all kinds of approaches with W-A all to no avail. I thought that would be quite the query that it would cope well with…

In the end, I sidestepped Google and went to Wikipedia and searched for “dead outnumber the living”, which is from the foreword of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I thus found the Arthur C. Clarke quote about the 30 ghosts standing behind every living person. Do the sums and you get an estimate of 45-100 billion people who have ever lived. Not the 11 billion I saw mentioned on a twitter bio earlier today. So there’s an answer.

So, Google versus Wolfram Alpha. They’re not the same. But, who do you think will win?