Knowledge, computing, and the future of Siri: An interview with Wolfram|Alpha’s Luc Barthelet

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Since its October 14 launch, accounts of users’ conversations with voice-activated artificial intelligence app Siri have flooded Twitter streams and Facebook news feeds. The popular app, part of the new Apple iPhone 4s, interacts with users by answering questions and responding to commands. While other talking apps merely search the web for answers, Siri has a leg up — in the form of Wolfram|Alpha.

The Daily Caller caught up with Wolfram|Alpha Executive Director Luc Barthelet to discuss the inadequacy of question-and-answer systems like search engines and wikis.

“We do not search the web for answers,” said Barthelet, “we curate and provide answers. When you ask a question you don’t just want the answer, you want to become more intelligent and know how to put it into context.

Wolfram|Alpha defines itself as computational knowledge engine in that it “generates output by doing computations from its own internal knowledge base,” instead of searching the web and returning links.” For example, if a person were to ask it what the weather was like on their birthday, Wolfram|Alpha could compute that using its database.”

British scientist Stephen Wolfram’s vision was the democratization of information through coding knowledge into an algorithm. He launched the product’s website in 2009.

“Right now, there’s a lot of stuff on the web,” Barthelet told The Daily Caller. “In many cases, we want an answer but we are in an environment where we don’t want to be browsing and searching the web.”

He took care to emphasize that Wolfram|Alpha isn’t a search engine looking to replace Google, nor is it a new-and-improved Wikipedia.

“We are not a question and answer system that searches the web for links,” he told theDC. “And, because of the complexity of what we do, we are not like Wikipedia. We program expertise into our algorithm, and we generate a report that puts the knowledge into context.”

“If you think of all the things that could be answered, Wikipedia can only provide information on a small amount of things, and it is not calculated.”

Barthelet was optimistic that the future of search not only involved search engines, but also knowledge computation engines.

“There will be more knowledge, but it won’t necessarily be academic knowledge,” Barthelet told TheDC. “If you and I are in a phone call and we wanted to know a movie time, we could ask AT&T, while we are in the conversation, about movie times. We could ask if the movie was sold out, or where there were open seats. Cars could tell you diagnostics.”

“I don’t think that search engines are going to disappear, but I do think that they’re going to stop being the only way that people are going to be getting information.”

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