Most of us have heard of Wolfram Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” spearheaded by Stephen Wolfram (original thinking on the name there, Stephen), a new online service which had some tongues wagging about being a “challenger” to Google.
No, this is not the case. This “knowledge engine” is not a search engine, and comparing the two is a little like comparing a toaster and a Cylon.
(C’mon … Battlestar Galactica. Catch up.)
Once I recognized the knowledge engine was, like Ask.com, designed to answer questions, my second thought was “Answer,” a classic Fredric Brown science fiction short story from 1954. In this, a scientist connects the computing power of all the computers on all ninety-six billion planets in the known universe into one meglo-megacomputer, and then asks the question: “Is there a God?”
The machine answers: “Yes, now there is a God,” and promptly fries the scientist with a lightning bolt.
Being the reckless sort that I am, naturally I had to ask Wolfram Alpha the same question.
Answer: “Human Discourse. Additional functionality for this topic is under development.”
An acceptable response, and certainly more welcome than a lightning bolt.
(Maybe we have to wait for Wolfram Omega for the real answer. Or the lightning bolt.)
Being a little more brazen, I thought I’d ask the next toughie: “Was Jesus the Son of God?”
Answer: “Wolfram Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.”
It knew what to do with the God Question, but not the Jesus question.
Do you suppose Alpha is Jewish?
I don’t think it’s appropriate to project sentience on Alpha, though I can easily imagine millions of parents in the western world having been asked this question by their curious children, and a good percentage of them doing the mental equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and improvising something appropriate for the moment.
I can appreciate Alpha’s honesty, at least.
To finally get around to answering the question I left hanging since the second paragraph, my first thought was another classic story (this one from 1956) by science fiction legend Isaac Asimov called “The Last Question.” This question wasn’t theological: over the ages into the dim future, increasingly complex versions of a computer originally known as Multivac are asked variations of the question “Can entropy (the “running down” of the universe) be reversed?”
Finally, the computer’s descendent, AC, exiled in hyperspace after time, space, matter, and energy have ended, clings to existance only to answer The One Last Question it had been unable to answer over the trillions of years.
It finds the answer, and says “Let there be light!”
Anyone else care to ask Alpha that question? I’m not.
Copyright © 2009, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.