Wolfram|Alpha Becomes Smarter, Nobody Notices

In news that caught the attention of nobody, Wolfram Research implemented a significant upgrade to its Wolfram|Alpha answer engine.


Wolfram|Alpha is one of the smartest answer engines out there, and so much more than that. Based on British scientist Stephen Wolfram’s 1988 mathematics platform Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha uses sophisticated algorithms to attempt to distil the meaning of questions. The process of correctly interpreting natural language has long been a challenge for computer and linguistic experts, and history is littered with ultimately unimpressive results. Wolfram|Alpha has been steadily improving since its 2009 release though. Its results have grown from 60% accuracy in mid-2009 to approximately 90% today. And if answers that are close to correct are also tabulated, its success rate is nearly 95% [1].

Artificial Stupidity

To track progress, Wolfram|Alpha’s developers collect examples of “artificial stupidity,” which occurs when the program’s artificial intelligence veers off in a completely tangential direction. For example, asking Wolfram|Alpha about guinea pigs would show users data on the nation Guinea and ask if he or she intended to ask about livestock. With these improvements, Wolfram|Alpha is better able to detect such mistakes.

‘Remembering Siri’

Wolfram|Alpha gained popularity when it was used to power Apple’s Siri program, which translates verbal questions to text and sends them to Wolfram|Alpha’s servers for analysis. The program has been a hit in the media and in popular culture. Paired with a human voice that interacts with users, Siri attempts to give users a personal interaction with their smart phones. And Siri’s mistakes have become an Internet meme; examples of Siri humorously misinterpreting questions have become an online hit on social media and other online locations.

The Future

When many think of artificial intelligence, they think of IBM, prestigious education institutes and government agencies. But Wolfram, a small British company, is, in many ways, leading the way toward a future where people interact with electronic devices for a growing number of daily tasks. Perhaps there will come a day when the name Wolfram|Alpha becomes well known, but, for now, news about this product remains unknown to all except few.


[1] Stephen Wolfram, OVERCOMING ARTIFICIAL STUPIDITY, April 17, 2012 – http://blog.wolframalpha.com/2012/04/17/overcoming-artificial-stupidity/

Dan Petrovic, the managing director of DEJAN, is Australia’s best-known name in the field of search engine optimisation. Dan is a web author, innovator and a highly regarded search industry event speaker.

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