Scaling Up the Wolfram|Alpha Project

Things with Wolfram|Alpha are going well. Really well. So well that I’m now incredibly keen to scale them up dramatically.

When I started the Wolfram|Alpha project, I was not even sure anything like it would be possible. But over the last two years we’ve proved that, yes, with the tower of technology we’ve created, one can in fact take large swaths of knowledge, make them computable, and deliver them for everyone to use.

From the outside, it’s easy to see that there’s been steady growth in the domains of knowledge that Wolfram|Alpha covers. And over the next few months there’ll be some big additions, notably in everyday and consumer areas. But to me what’s most dramatic is what’s happened on the inside. Because what we’ve done is to build a giant system of technology and management processes that allows us systematically to make any area of knowledge computable.

The catch is that it always takes effort. We rely on a huge tower of automation. But in every new area we tackle there are new issues, new opportunities—and new ways that resources and human effort have to be used.

I’m very pleased with how broad and deep the coverage we have already achieved is. But we have an immense to-do list, assembled not least from all the feedback we’ve received from users of Wolfram|Alpha. And the good news is that at this point it’s a straight shot: given enough effort, we can complete the to-do list. We have all the systems we need to scale the knowledge in Wolfram|Alpha up all the way.

There’s another thing that’s happening now too: we’re steadily understanding more and more about the platform we’ve created with Wolfram|Alpha. And we’re realizing that there are an incredible number of different ways this platform can be used and deployed.

At first Wolfram|Alpha was just a website. Already it has spawned two dozen other products, and the pace of new products will accelerate dramatically this fall.

We are also just beginning to understand Wolfram|Alpha as a new computing paradigm—and that too is spawning all sorts of new directions. What if one takes input that isn’t text? What if one could deliver results preemptively? What if Wolfram|Alpha ideas are fundamentally integrated into a programming language? And so on.

These directions are more speculative—and someone less confident than I might barely consider them. But I have no doubt that all of them will bear fruit, often in much richer ways than we can yet imagine.

There is so much to do. So much further to scale up the Wolfram|Alpha project. And the exciting thing is that we now have the technology and the organizational systems necessary to do it.

And we’ve also developed a loyal following of people who use Wolfram|Alpha every day—on the web, on mobile devices, through other systems, and elsewhere. At the beginning, we had lots of tourists, bringing us web traffic—and checking out Easter eggs and the like. But over time that has given way to a consistent base of users who rely on us for all sorts of things.

Realistically, though, we haven’t been “discovered” yet in even a small fraction of the areas we cover. We don’t know the whole process by which that happens (and it would make a fascinating study), but somehow, gradually, different areas of Wolfram|Alpha functionality do seem to be “discovered”, and progressively build up larger and larger followings.

At a business level, one strategy we could follow is to wait for more areas to be discovered, build up partnerships, app sales, and so on, and use revenue from this to fund the expansion of the project. And certainly I myself have no fear of very long-term projects: in a month or so, for example, I will have worked on Mathematica for 25 years.

And indeed in my experience, there are some projects that inevitably require the passage of many years. But with Wolfram|Alpha today the story is different: we know that we can scale up, and that if we do, we can in a modest number of years cover an immense territory. There will always be more to do—more computational knowledge to add. But with what we know how to do today, we are in position quite rapidly to vastly expand what can be made computable, and, I hope, by doing so, to make some great advances in what is possible in the world.

I have been fortunate enough to run a group of companies that have been consistently profitable for the past 23 years—and indeed this is what made it possible for me to create Wolfram|Alpha in the first place. And today, with the current state of Wolfram|Alpha as a commercial entity, we can certainly continue to grow its capabilities.

But at this point I feel we almost have a responsibility to push the development of Wolfram|Alpha at the maximum possible rate, and to deliver to everyone what is technically possible absolutely as fast as it can be done.

To be able to do this, however, we need not only great technical and systems innovations, but also business innovations. We need to learn how to take Wolfram|Alpha, and not only scale up its content and capabilities, but also scale up its revenue and its business reach.

So this fall, along with all sorts of new features in Wolfram|Alpha, we will be trying out a whole range of business innovations for Wolfram|Alpha. Inevitably there are tensions and compromises to be made, and in the course of the next few months we will be working hard to navigate these. We need more revenue to scale up what we are doing—but whatever happens, we are committed to ensuring that the basic Wolfram|Alpha website remains free for anyone anywhere to use.

It is, I think, in everyone’s interest to see Wolfram|Alpha developed as quickly as it can be. And we are working hard to figure out the best possible way to do this—with the best models for how value for users can translate into commercial support for the development of the project.

I must admit that I personally have spent much more of my life working on strategy for technology than strategy for business. But there are such wonderful opportunities today for Wolfram|Alpha that I feel compelled to put whatever powers of innovation I have toward business as well as technology.

Whatever happens, there is a wonderful path ahead for Wolfram|Alpha. But I look forward to finding ways to deliver to the world a large chunk of our current to-do list not in a quarter of a century, but in a small number of years. And I look forward to working with our users and others to find the best ways to make that possible.

Posted in: Wolfram|Alpha

13 comments. Show all »

  1.  

    Hi Stephen. I made these rule 110 tiles. Would you like some? https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.984874686157.2738283.8625515

    Eric James Parfitt
  2.  

    I’m using W/A heavily in my introductory chemistry classes, both through MMA, the web, and through the iPad app.

    One real problem in education is the extent to which many educators are “allergic” to students being able to obtain data through electronic resources (Wikipedia, Google, W/A, etc.). In chemistry, we make kids calculate the molar mass of compounds by hand EVERY SINGLE TIME. I appreciate having them do it a COUPLE of times so they understand where the numbers come from, but at some point, it’s simply TEDIUM. I have yet to figure out how to overcome the “but this is the way I had to do it” mindset of my colleagues, many of whom are otherwise very competent and creative educators.

    100% of my introductory and advanced chemistry classes are done with MMA and W/A. Both really work well.

    My ONLY criticism of W/A is “missing data”, especially for chemical compounds. As a chemist, I certainly appreciate magnitude of the (potential) dataset, but too many “Missing” hits sort of discourages students that I am otherwise trying to encourage.

  3.  

    I now use MMA & Wolfram|Alpha in financial trading and have discovered so many great little productivity hacks and tricks that I am reluctant to share them, just because of competitive nature of financial trading.

    My next project is to convert my fixed income trading class from Excel and VBA to MMA. I know I’ll face stiff opposition from some students and faculty, but that is just the price to pay for innovation.

    Attila Forruchi
  4.  

    I just used for the first time Wolfram|Alpha on my first lab set of iPads (replacing PC’s) with my students in physics lab today . I see the real potential there. On the future, instead of thinking about more computational knowledge in STEM or other subjects, think W|A can do Ask Watson (IBM’s Watson showcased in Jeopardy) + computation knowledge. Then W|A will become a very very powerful tool for ordinary folks. To make W|A become that natural (Ask Watson) will be a big challenge, but I think it is in the right direction to go. I hope your new directions in the fall are somewhat heading toward that direction. Meanwhile, you have gain dozens of new W|A users from my classes. Please scale up.

    KC Chan
  5.  

    I’m excited to see what you have planned for this!

    Justin Mares
  6.  

    I am an entrepreneur and a researcher and honestly from both standpoints Wolfram Alpha is primed to do big things. I wish you the best of luck although I am certain you will not need it. I was wondering where is the raw information being pulled from, I mention this because I believe that such a tool is the perfect header for something like WikiPedia. People could access the computational knowledge of all our written knowledge and then the outcomes can be computed back into the Wiki so that future 2nd,3rd, nth… order computations can be accomplished. Also I believe that at least for a less commercial variant of this you should look into a few simple logical/Boolean commands and operators.
    Example :
    “All elements with Atomic number 5771mass divided by specific heat density”
    Just a thought.

    In regards to commercial applications I can only recommend that you never charge people for the use of Wolfram. There are ways to turn a very sizable profit from such a thing even with out the inclusion of pesky advertisements. Anyway I ramble. I am very certain that one day the archaic search engine will be replaced by this or a variant of such. Best of luck.

    David

    David
  7.  

    I love the product. I hope that it does expand the accessible data. I use useit I’ve been a Mathematica user since version 1.

    But, unless the user interface gets smarter and quits requiring us to input questions in a way that almost approximates the Mathematica language, then you won’t achieve the popularity that you desire with with business and the public.

    I can give a several simple examples, as I’m sure many users can, as well. Spend time on your user interface if you want success in business or every day life of a typical “non-geek” user.

    Charles Glover
  8.  

    Will we see W|A integrated (somehow) into IBM|Smart Analytics anytime soon? This must be the most appropriate vehicle to scale up W|A capabilities to new (unexplored) heights. I believe that the power alone of data curating capabilities that IBM|Watson alone could bring to the table is mindbogglingly.

    Best of fortunes whatever you decide to do with what is by any measure already, no doubt, a wonderful life achievement!

    Eduardo Avalos
  9.  

    I even would spend some money for the project if it continuous to be freely available! (I do the same for Wikipedia)

    Gerhard Brunthaler
  10.  

    Computability is nothing but ability until it is utilized. I have been using W|A since the first minute of its conception and am now doing some beta testing. Sometimes W|A amazes me, but most of my time is spent trying to trick it into doing what I want!

    I would like to see firmer syntax with atomic computable elements that can be chained together. Right now I am using parentheses.

    I suspect that W|A areas of success are those where users recognize the bounds and interactions their computational elements: such as in mathematics.

    Mikhail Kandel
  11.  

    Agree with Eduardo Avalos above. The first thing which came to my mind when I read the post is that Watson would be a very valuable hire for this very needed project. Any plans to develop such an engine or take on the existing one?

  12.  

    Thank you so much for this text, Stephen. Appreciated very much.

  13.  

    Wolfram Alpha, the most avid intellect computing platform, will indeed play a crucial role for interfacing the human mind to the vastness of others’ in the coming next paradigm of knowledge communication. While delivering precise knowledge facts packaged in computation seem to be the immediate goal for Wolfram Alpha, I believe the many irrational human nature enclosed in the many personalized data that we generate via the net may provide some sense of warmth on the coldness of knowledge that is hard to mitigate from the current status of Wolfram Alpha, which is posed as a relentless computing machine. Where hard facts and popular ones converge, the more reachable and amicable will our knowledge be presented before us, where I believe Wolfram Alpha may as well play our second mind.

    Mong-ju Jung
Hide comments »