Wolfram Alpha, a computational knowledge engine, is an incredibly useful reference tool. In addition to solving mathematical and scientific equations and conversions, it can handle factual answers with ease. Capital of Utah? Salt Lake City. Boiling point of alcohol? 78°C. How tall is a giraffe? 13-20 feet.
But ask it more complex questions, and it will spit out wonky answers. I was working on a ToolGuyd post and wanted to compare a quantity of sockets to the number of bones in one’s hand. So I popped onto Wolfram Alpha for what I hoped would be a quick answer.
How many bones in human hand? Input interpretation: number of bones in an adult human skeleton hands; 206 hands; 68.67 feet, and then it went on to offer a few metric conversions. It also asked if I wanted to use Persian hands as a unit, which doesn’t seem to affect the results in any way.
How long do turtles live for? Assuming tortoise; Data not available. Okay, let me rephrase the query: Average turtle lifespan? Assuming tortoise; maximum recorded lifespan; 255 years.
Color red plus yellow? Additive color mixing; result: yellow. So it recognizes that I want to add red and yellow, but still spits out yellow?
How about blue plus yellow? White. What?! White? Rewording the query only leads to a dark gray swatch.
Will it rain today? No precipitation. (Wrong, it already sun-showered earlier today!)
Okay, so perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. Wolfram Alpha is a computational knowledge engine, and so it’s not fair to expect it to mix colors or report back the number of bones in a human hand.
Distance a photon travels in 5-minutes? 55.88 million miles. *Counts fingers* – sounds about right.
Locate Captain Picard. And it does, kind of!
Wolfram Alpha is still an incredible reference, but it’s not quite up to Star Trek-level tasks where you can ask a random question and expect a reasonable answer. Apple’s Siri “digital assistant” and Google’s Knowledge Engine, which is still in development, may push into new frontiers or hopefully at least create some competition.