Prologues for this post: "Hello Computer" & "The Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything"
If I walked up to you and said "light bulb," without any context, you'd probably lift one eyebrow at me. If I added some context, "first light bulb," you might reply "Thomas Edison." You might even tell me the year it was patented: 1878. Well, a new technology, demonstrated last week by Dr. Stephen Wolfram, does exactly the same thing, and according to an article in The Independent, it could "change the internet for ever." The system, described as a "computational knowledge engine," is able to interpret ordinary language for simple search queries, giving context to what most search engines would simply return as a series of web pages.
So what else can you do with this technology? MIT's Technology Review queried the system with "Microsoft Apple," and it returned graphics and tables comparing the two companies' stock values over time. Another simple task would be to do unit conversions. But some of these queries (e.g. pounds to kilograms) are already able to be interpreted by Google, and the Google's iPhone app can even interpret voice searches using the iPhone's microphone. So the critical question, really, is whether Wolfram's new engine is all that cutting-edge, and I would argue that it is.
The technology hasn't even been released as a beta yet, so I would hope that the upcoming releases will be able to demonstrate more interpretive power. In its current form, the software will stumble over very simple queries. But fans of Star Trek, and sci-fi in general, know where this is going. On the starship Enterprise, you can ask about the history of the Romulans or the distance to the nearest starbase and get precise answers. David Brin, writer of the Uplift Trilogy, envisions volumes of digital knowledge from many different galactic races, accessible from a computer terminal called "The Library." And I hope you watched the prologue videos. Eventually, development of Wolfram's engine (and others ilke it) will lead to a system that you can ask an ordinary question in plain language, and it will access the entire digital collective of human knowledge and report back with a reliable answer.
So what are the next steps? Wolfram's system is supposed to be publicly accessible this month, and I've heard through the grapevine of others developing similar engines. I would encourage you to play around with these as they come online, offering feedback to the developers so that they can continue to improve these systems. Today, we can ask who invented the first lightbulb. Someday, maybe we can ask "how can we end genocide?" Or even, "What's the ultimate question?"
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