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Wolfram Promises Computing That Answers Questions 369

Posted by timothy
from the he's-feeling-lucky-you-feel-lucky-too dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Computer scientist Stephen Wolfram feels that he has put together at least the initial version of a computer that actually answers factual questions, a la Star Trek's ship computers. His version will be found on their Web-based application, Wolfram Alpha. What does this mean? Well, instead of returning links to pages that may (or may not) contain the answer to your questions, Wolfram will respond with the actual answer. Just imagine typing in 'How many bones are in the human body?' and getting the answer." Right now, though the search entry field is in place, Alpha is not yet generally available -- only "to a few select individuals."
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Wolfram Promises Computing That Answers Questions

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  • Lojban (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Sybert42 (1309493) *

    I don't think this can be examined without language issues. Lojban attempts to make a parsable constructed language (currently undergoing a few grammar issues, but mostly locked down). As we get closer to the Singularity, with regards to infant-style general AI and perhaps even transhuman implants (thought detector or such), we'll see perhaps a myriad of unambiguous languages.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      There is no need to fully parse natural languages (or to substitute them with made up languages you can parse...) in order to answer questions posed in natural languages. Indeed, one does not need to *understand* a question (in whatever AI meaning you want) in order to find its answer.
      • Re:Lojban (Score:4, Insightful)

        by goombah99 (560566) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:24PM (#27115583)

        is the answer to this question "no"?

        If you want to answer a question without understanding the question then how do you know when the question can be answered?

        • is the answer to this question "no"?

          [snip]

          five.

    • Re:Lojban (Score:5, Funny)

      by gardyloo (512791) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:17PM (#27115523)

      I don't think this can be examined without language issues. Lojban attempts to make a parsable constructed language (currently undergoing a few grammar issues, but mostly locked down). As we get closer to the Singularity, with regards to infant-style general AI and perhaps even transhuman implants (thought detector or such), we'll see perhaps a myriad of unambiguous languages.

      Your cautiousness and pragmatism in the first two sentences was noted and admired. Then you used the word Singularity in the Vinge sense, and my woo-detector pegged.

    • Re:Lojban (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dkf (304284) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:18PM (#27115527) Homepage

      I don't think this can be examined without language issues. Lojban attempts to make a parsable constructed language (currently undergoing a few grammar issues, but mostly locked down). As we get closer to the Singularity, with regards to infant-style general AI and perhaps even transhuman implants (thought detector or such), we'll see perhaps a myriad of unambiguous languages.

      Any language that is truly unambiguous is uninteresting. Firstly, you've got Goedel incompleteness to worry about (which stems from statements that are fundamentally ambiguous as to their interpretation, such as "this statement is false"). Secondly, languages are there for people to communicate with, and people seem to prefer ambiguity. Ask a poet if you need proof of that.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Firstly, you've got Goedel incompleteness to worry about (which stems from statements that are fundamentally ambiguous as to their interpretation, such as "this statement is false"). Secondly, languages are there for people to communicate with, and people seem to prefer ambiguity

        What exactly does Godel's theorem have to do with what you just said? The incompleteness theorem deals with axiomatized systems. This leads me to think that you might be confusing the popular meaning of "language" with the mathematical definition. People (at least normal people) do not communicate with mathematical languages.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by dkf (304284)

          What exactly does Godel's theorem have to do with what you just said? The incompleteness theorem deals with axiomatized systems. This leads me to think that you might be confusing the popular meaning of "language" with the mathematical definition. People (at least normal people) do not communicate with mathematical languages.

          If you have an unambiguous system, that means it must be possible to give an exact translation from it into mathematics. After all, that's what mathematical notation really is, a way of unambiguously saying things.

          But wait! Goedel says that there are no interesting complete mathematical systems (yeah, I do know what axiomatization is, thankyouverymuch). From that we can then deduce that the language that is being translated from must either be able to describe paradoxical entities whose interpretation/valua

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Tubal-Cain (1289912)
        Lojban allows for ambiguity, but in such a way that the listener can recognize that the statement is incomplete.
    • by AliasMarlowe (1042386) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:18PM (#27115531) Journal
      Either:
      1. Windows version of program crashes without answering
      2. Mac version of program says "after your next question, smartass"
      3. Linux version of program says never, 'cos it can't even drive a car
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by linhares (1241614)
      "will you answer no to this question?" kernel panic
      • Re:Lojban (Score:4, Interesting)

        by HiThere (15173) <charleshixsn&earthlink,net> on Sunday March 08, 2009 @08:09PM (#27115977)

        Are you limited to yes/no answers?

        Why are people presuming that the program will be limited to yes/no answers?
        Q: Will you answer no to this question?
        A: It's rather unlikely.

        (Or, "I doubt it" or any of several different answers.)

        There are enough legitimate paradoxes that you don't need to construct such obvious losers.

        How about:
        Is "This statement is false." false?

        It's still easy enough to handle (in several different ways), but at least it's a valid challenge.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by linhares (1241614)

          Why are people presuming that the program will be limited to yes/no answers? Q: Will you answer no to this question? A: It's rather unlikely. (Or, "I doubt it" or any of several different answers.)

          Q: What made you think it's rather unlikely? kernel panic

      • by Bandman (86149)

        Are you implying that the computer hasn't been programmed to lie?

  • How many bones (Score:5, Interesting)

    by icebike (68054) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:01PM (#27115391)

    Q: How many bones are in the human body
    A: Did you mean cumulatively or at any point in time?

  • Odd, i didn't get an answer.

  • Simple: (Score:4, Funny)

    by kbrasee (1379057) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:02PM (#27115395) Homepage
    package com.wolfram;

    public class Alpha {

        public static void main(String[] args) {
            System.out.println("42");
        }

    }
  • by SirLurksAlot (1169039) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:04PM (#27115411)

    Been there, done that. [ask.com]

    All that is old is new again.

    • IIRC AskJeeves just searched the web for you. This, according to the summary, tries to pull the answer to your question out of the web for you. IE, if you searched "how many rupees in a dollar?" AskJeeves would give you a link to a currency converter; this would, in theory, give you "50 rupees" (or whatever the exchange rate is now).
  • A.I. (Score:3, Informative)

    by unlametheweak (1102159) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:04PM (#27115413)

    Google already does this. Type a question like "What is one plus one?" and you will get an answer. It's artificial intelligence.

    • Re:A.I. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by philgross (23409) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:21PM (#27115549) Homepage
      It goes further than that. Try Googling "how old is Britney Spears" and "what is the population of iceland" (without quotes). The answer appears at the top, separately from the search results.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by am 2k (217885)

        That seems to be hardcoded though, it already fails at "how old is Steve Jobs".

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          It also fails on This [google.co.uk] - seriously...

      • by Korin43 (881732)
        The age isn't hard coded, there are probably just a small number of trusted sites (or maybe it needs to get a consensus?). How to figure out when a website is talking about age is probably hard coded though, unless Google already is Skynet.
      • Re:A.I. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by dotancohen (1015143) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @09:25PM (#27116591) Homepage

        It goes further than that. Try Googling "how old is Britney Spears" and "what is the population of iceland" (without quotes). The answer appears at the top, separately from the search results.

        Google them together, it returns your post!

      • Now try googling "what is the population of states that border Spain and only Spain".

        If I understand TFA, the application in question will actually be able to answer that question.

  • a computer that actually answers factual questions

    I've never seen a politician who has been able to do that. But I guess they don't want to either.

  • Maybe it should be called it "Tungsten"?
    Tungsten has the symbol "W" from its original name, "Wolfram" (which comes from wolframite, one of the ores from which it is extracted.)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tungsten [wikipedia.org]
  • by st0rmshad0w (412661) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:22PM (#27115565)

    ...they only give you answers.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:25PM (#27115591) Journal
    Wolfram seems to be his, er, original self as always. Isn't phrasing search results in the form of a question old news by now?
  • "What is the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything?"

    "Hmm. Tricky." ...


    We miss you, Mr. Adams.
  • like this? (Score:3, Informative)

    by cvd6262 (180823) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:31PM (#27115635)
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by argiedot (1035754)
      Not at all. Compare this [google.co.in] with asking START [mit.edu] the same question: "How far is Los Angeles from New York?"
  • by physicsphairy (720718) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:32PM (#27115651) Homepage

    Trying to find mathematics/physics information is often pretty terrible. I mean, if you are just looking for a topic you can generally pull up related papers, but that is about the depth of complexity you are capable of searching for.

    Unfortunately there is no convenient (or universal) plaintext notation. If you are doing anything serious you probably use latex markup (e.g., \Psi^{*}\Psi) or something similar to render images of your equations. That's well and good for people who just want to read your paper, but for people who want to do a complex search to find very specific bits of contextual information, it is just about useless.

    So if I can hope that Wolfram's goal is to make his company's math and science knowledge base searchable by some sort of contextual framework, then that could be pretty awesome for those of us who would like to penetrate particular aspects of independent fields without having to become experts on the fields first.

  • I'm just wonderin' ...

    • by solafide (845228)
      Wolfram, obviously. It's why he came up with A New Kind of Science [wikipedia.org], and not anyone else 20 years earlier.
  • All that Wolfarm has promised here is a wall of text full of buzzwords. Until I can actually test this it's just another cuil.
  • What happens if I try to ask it when it will be available to the rest of us mere mortals? Does the web site or my head asplode?

  • "Who will lead mankind to victory in the war against the machines?" Eh?! Just hope the thing doesn't answer

    ##1 &

  • Just Words (Score:3, Insightful)

    by prefec2 (875483) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @07:53PM (#27115847)

    As long as they are not showing the tool to the public, I do not believe they build a system which promises that. However, there have been lots of research in this area and there are methods to convert queries into horn-clauses so you can query knowledge bases. I designed a method in my master thesis which does similar things, however it was laid out to be performed by humans.

    As ingredients for such a system you need
    - a knowledge base filled with facts (you can use OWL for it if you want or a rule based approach)
    - a reasoner (e.g. something like pellet)
    - a rule engine (e.g. something like Jess)
    - a method which understands simple English query sentences.

    The really hard part is the knowledge base, because it is lots of work. And an automated approach which can understand written documents and classify them correctly would be great, but I doubt that they found a solution for this problem.

    This problem includes:
    - How to handle uncertainty?
    - What to do with contradicting knowledge?
    - What to do with temporal aspects in that knowledge?

    However, if they built a tool which can answer question of one single domain of knowledge, this is nothing new. Such machines exist now for a long time. They can be helpful, but there is nothing exciting about them.

  • True Knowledge (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sanity (1431) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @08:09PM (#27115981) Homepage Journal
    True Knowledge [trueknowledge.com] have been doing this for over a year. Anyone can add facts to their database, and it will attempt to use those facts to infer answers to questions. Its actually very cool, although doesn't yet support such notions as uncertainty.
  • Well, quizbot from trueknowledge already does what
    wolfram alpha promise to do in May.

    http://quizbot.trueknowledge.com/ [trueknowledge.com]

  • ...The question "how many bones are there in the hunan body?"

    In a poorly formatted answer embedded in a preview above a URL was this text:

    "there are 206 in adults and up to 350 for infants"

    I did not have to click on anyting to read this text - it was just there.

    Me thinks we are already there,

  • by Cylix (55374) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @08:50PM (#27116325) Homepage Journal

    I'm not sure I really want to trust a product by Wolfram and Heart. Seems like there is a possibility of some soul loss.

  • by CAIMLAS (41445) on Sunday March 08, 2009 @09:56PM (#27116811) Homepage

    Tools like this are decreasing the general ability of the population to research - resulting in a debt in 'comprehensive knowledge' on topics.

    Yes, tools like search engines enhance our ability to retrieve information faster than written documents such as manuals, dictionaries, and fiction, but they do not - 100% of the time, or even 80% of the time - lead us to the answers to complex questions directly. We are still required, as human beings, to read material, digest it, and often confer an answer.

    People will largely lose the ability to make (effective) decisions on their own, because the critical inputs for a good decision are usually both a broad and deep understanding of the topics at hand.

    Think of what kind of impact this would have on the overall problem solving ability of a population. Problem solving is often largely qualified by a person's ability to get a good picture of what the problem is. What do we do when a person can simply ask complex questions where a wealth of experience was previously required? Sure, this allows people to move on to do other things, but...

    When you make it so that your analytical people - the problem solvers and those who create new things - are made irrelevant by a technology, you as a society will stop evolving socially. No, it will not happen immediately. It will happen gradually, over the period of a generation. Consider the dearth between the research abilities of a previous generation, and those who are graduating college today. There is a substantial difference, and the ease in which information is acquirable today has had a lot to do with this shortcoming.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by davevr (29843)

      I suspect it will be similar to the great cultural loss of the ability to memorize long narratives that was brought about by the invention of writing.

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