Wolfram Alpha: The Brain Machine Goes Live

by Daniel Brenton on May 18, 2009

in My Odd Little Universe


Start: 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.

Wolfram Alpha Defers on The Big 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?”

Wolfram Alpha is Befuddled by

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.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lyman Reed May 18, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I loved both of those stories, Daniel! Thanks so much for reminding me about them.

Wolfram Alpha is pretty fun to play with – you seem to have asked it some deeper questions than I have. I won’t mention mine here, since my wife might be looking… 😉 Suffice it to say Google’s image search worked much better.

And on the Jesus question, I wonder if you changed “the Son” to “a son” what the results would be? I might just try it.


Angela May 19, 2009 at 1:17 am

Awesome! I truly enjoy your personable, slightly rebellious take on spirituality and how warped our world has gotten on the subject…thanks for bringing both wit and wisdom to such profound questions.


Daniel Brenton May 19, 2009 at 10:10 am

Lyman, Angela —

Thank you.

This was just “there.” Like sunrises, life, and the UNLV Rebels screwing up for the season, it was inevitable.

— Daniel


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