What are you using Wolfram Alpha for?

"Google Killer": What happened to the Wolfram Alpha answer machine?

Human knowledge as a database, facts as answers to questions on the Internet. What still sounds utopian today has been possible in many areas with Wolfram Alpha since 2009. Why did the answer machine never catch on?

In 2009, the British computer scientist Stephen Wolfram presented a new type of Internet application: Wolfram Alpha. Some of you may remember - unlike Google, which was already a long-standing success at the time, Wolfram Alpha was not supposed to be a search engine, but rather an answer engine.

While Google simply creates lists in its results of the websites on which the entered search term can be found, Wolfram claimed to recognize the searched terms in their context and then to curate results based on facts.

Wolfram Alpha understands the meaning of language

To put it simply: First of all, Wolfram Alpha can use the additional search terms to determine whether the input "50 Cent" means the American rapper or a coin. Second, it automatically creates a results page with all the information available. To stay with the example: The search query "50 Cent" asks to be specified and tells the user that the input is understood as a question about money, but also offers the musician.

Currency or rapper: Wolfram Alpha wants to know exactly how it is meant. (Source: screenshot)

If the user now selects the rapper, a tabular list of his albums appears with the exact date of publication and a graph that shows how often he has been searched for on Wikipedia since 2008.

A quick hype to start with

In 2009 this caused a huge media response. The mirror headlined: "Software genius promises the Google killer" and "Hype about the knowledge dwarf". In an interview with the weekly newspaper The time Stephen Wolfram immediately clarified:

“It's not a search engine. We call Alpha a machine for computing human knowledge. Alpha calculates new data and facts to answer questions that users ask. We use the entire knowledge of human civilization as starting material, with which calculations can be made. "

After the great initial interest, as the online research shows, it quickly became quiet about Wolfram Alpha. This is also confirmed by the page's entry on itself: The diagram of the Wikipedia hitlist shows a brief peak of around 6,000 search queries a day for 2009, after which, with a few exceptions, barely the 1,000 mark was broken.

Flattening curve: After the strong but brief interest in the general public, there is less and less search for Wolfram Alpha - at least on Wikipedia. (Source: Wolfram Alpha / Screenshot)

The figures are collected from the English language Wikipedia edition. And that is perhaps a first reason why Wolfram Alpha never conquered the mass market: The service is only available in English even eleven years after it was launched.

Why is Wolfram Alpha not a commercial success?

But can that count as an argument? In Germany, English is finally taught at school, and the Internet-savvy society watches Netflix series in the original English language. However, Wolfram Alpha cannot help with this demonstration.

The machine cannot do anything with the question of English-speaking Germans, but Statista helps. 63% of Germans state that they can speak and understand English at least reasonably well.

So why was there no commercial success? When Stephen Wolfram introduced the service in 2009, it sounded quite confident. In a blog post he wrote: "It almost brings us to what people thought 50 years ago that computers can do in the future!"

The internet has become a convenient place

He is referring to a science fiction concept of the 1960s, according to which people at some point simply ask a computer an oral question and then get a spoken answer. Real human communication with a computer.

Perhaps, however, the triumphant advance of the convenient Internet had already begun. Because that's what Google can do: Easy to use interface and quick to find answers to almost everything. Whether the answers are correct, however, is left to the judgment of the searcher. Google searches are not responsible for facts.

Wolfram Alpha vs. Google: Clear numbers from Alexa, an Amazon subsidiary that collects access data on the Internet. (Source: Wolfram Alpha / Screenshot)

Also convenient: Pay for services with personal data instead of real money. Wolfram Alpha can be used free of charge and free of advertising to activate all functions, but users need Pro access. It currently costs 7.49 euros a month, for a whole year 59.90 euros.

Wolfram Alpha takes work

Using Wolfram Alpha also requires work from the users. A short self-test shows how unusual this is: Before a question is asked, the person asking the question must think carefully about what kind of answer he is actually expecting. To do this, the question can be asked in natural - i.e. spoken language - but it must be precise.

Even if the software helps, the procedure demands a lot more from the user than Google. There is a reaction to almost everything. In addition, in fractions of a second, as the search engine reveals with every query.

After years of getting used to Google, most of them probably lack the patience for Wolfram Alpha: After the request, a loading bar appears and the word “Computing” appears - the machine is calculating, the content has to be created first.

A professional application - and more

The current version of the service is aimed primarily at students and other professionals in the natural sciences and information technology fields. Wolfram Alpha helps to calculate complex equations, to graphically represent plots and mathematical functions. It can actually do so much more than that.

For example, users can write their age, current weight, gender and level of sporting activity in the search mask, as well as how much they want to lose weight in which period - and shortly afterwards Wolfram Alpha says how many calories can then be consumed daily. You can also use a graph to show how the roasting time of a turkey changes in relation to its weight.

Many use Wolfram Alpha without realizing it

Is that how Wolfram Alpha failed? Not really. Many people use it in their everyday life without even realizing it. The program is behind many of the answers from Apple's language assistant Siri - but here only in the English-speaking area.

Wolfram Alpha never wanted to be a “Google killer”, it would be more than that anyway. A decade earlier, it might have shaped our way of using the Internet very differently. For most people it seems invisible in the background, as a tool it is mainly used by experts.