Wolfram Alpha is a “computational knowledge engine” that is being developed parallel to semantic search. Its architecture is different, but the goal is the same: designing new algorithms to make search more intelligent. While search engines like Google are great at collating results, Wolfram Alpha will attempt to give answers. Instead of searching for an answer, it computes it. The difference is a little tricky to understand. For answers to fact-based questions, Google can only answer what has been asked before. Wolfram Alpha will be able to understand, and compute, questions it’s never seen.

Wolfram Alpha is the creation of theoretical physicist Steven Wolfram, who uses the architectures and insights of two of his previous projects, Mathematica and A New Kind of Science, as a basis for finding search answers rather than results.

Mathematica is a program for solving complex mathematical computations, and A New Kind of Science details Wolfram’s work on cellular automata, computations undergirding the entire universe.

“With Mathematica, I had a symbolic language to represent anything—as well as the algorithmic power to do any kind of computation,” writes Wolfram on his blog. “And with NKS (A New Kind of Science), I had a paradigm for understanding how all sorts of complexity could arise from simple rules.”

Twine creator Nova Spivak, who attended a two-hour demonstration of Wolfram Alpha, says the program “is like plugging into a vast electronic brain.”

Search terms are increasingly getting longer as users get more savvy, and are oftentimes formulated in the form of questions. Finding the answer isn’t difficult, but it can be time consuming as you wade through different sites to find a desirable source.

Google can get you there quick enough, but you still do most of the footwork finding the right source when the search results come up.

The accuracy of Wolfram Alpha’s computational results will have to be sparkling if it wants to succeed. While its architecture could be modified for greater things down the line, in order to gain users in the search market it will have to be faster than Google, and lead immediately to authoritative sources. If it can do these, it could cut down search times by several minutes a search.

Wolfram Alpha will launch in May.

By Mark Alvarez