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How hard is it to take on Google in the search business? Just ask Cuil, the little search engine that couldn't, which was developed by a handful of ex-Google employees. Or chat it up with Microsoft, who tried like Hades to acquire Yahoo for its search business, with or without Yahoo's consent. But whatever you do, don't tell Stephen Wolfram that it can't be done.
Wofram, who received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Caltech in 1979 when he was only 20 years old, plans to unveil a project he calls Wolfram Alpha. Just as the name does not imply, Wolfram Alpha combines his work with Mathematica and NKS (A New Kind of Science) to the voodoo of online search.
"All one needs to be able to do is to take questions people ask in natural language, and represent them in a precise form that fits into the computations one can do," Wolfram said in a recent blog post. "I'm happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we're actually managing to make it work."
At least one other person is convinced Wolfram Alpha has a bright future. Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks, says it could be as important to the web as Google, albeit for a different purpose. Spivack viewed a demo of Wolfram Alpha in action and says that the search engine doesn't just parse natural language to retrieve documents, but "actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions."
Whether or not Wolfram Alpha can live up to its billing as a "computational knowledge engine" remains to be seen, and as of right now, we'll get to see in May when the project goes live.