Jeremy Osborn: Designer, Educator, Writer

Jul 11

Wolfram Alpha and some Soba noodles

Sometime in May  (which feels like a year in Internet time) Wolfram Alpha was released to the public. Billed as a “computational knowledge engine” there was a bit of hype surrounding the technology behind it, the threat (if any) that Alpha might pose to Google and some backlash against Stephen Wolfram, the man lending his name to the technology.

Join me now, after the hype has died down,  in looking at a small slice of Alpha. On a whim I decided to jump over to the site when I became curious about Soba noodles. I wasn’t really sure what they were made of so I typed the phrase “Soba Noodles” into the input field.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the Nutrition Facts for a cup of Soba noodles:

One result for "Soba Noodes" on Wolfram Alpha

I was curious to know what kind of tech was behind this generated image: was it a .png, jpg, Flash? So I clicked on the image and was again surprised that a window appeared with the plaintext of the Nutritional Information making it easy to copy the data to your clipboard. (This is a feature of most results in Alpha, I discovered.)

Further down the results page, the Nutritional Information was divided into sections, my favorite was the “Highest nutrients in Soba noodles compared to other foods”. If you have a hankering for magnanese go get some Soba noodles.highest_nutrients_Soba_noodles

I modified my input to “2 cups soba noodles” and the results were quickly updated, which is kinda cool. This illustrates that Alpha’s name is apt, it is a “computational knowledge engine”, not a search engine. In fact, although it’s subtle, you can search either Google, Yahoo or Bing using your input by clicking the “Search the Web” section on the right hand side. In my case it was necessary, because nowhere on the page did it tell me that Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour. It will be interesting to see how the technology behind the site evolves, I’m guessing it will gain a devoted but relatively small audience. I suspect if the company ever wants to have a larger profile their challenge will be explaining to the average user what it is they do.

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Jeremy Osborn's Blog

This is the weblog of Jeremy Osborn, a designer, educator and writer living in the Boston area. I write here about design, technology and other matters. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow me on Twitter.

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