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How Wolfram|Alpha Works

What's behind Wolfram|Alpha?
Stephen Wolfram
Stephen Wolfram
Courtesy Wolfram Research

When Stephen Wolfram was just 15, he had his first scientific paper published. He earned his PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology when he was 20. Wolfram received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981, and that's right about the time he started looking into the systems of nature and how complex they are.

Wolfram began using computers in 1973. In 1986 his company, Wolfram Research, released the first version of its well-respected Mathematica software. Mathematica is used in all sorts of industries, including engineering, science and finance, and is capable of high-end computation and modeling. The algorithms from Mathematica are used to calculate and display search results in Wolfram|Alpha.

In 2002, Stephen Wolfram published a book called "A New Kind of Science," in which he explains his belief that simple rules can explain complex problems. As Wolfram explained in his March 2009 blog post, the principles in his book and the computational power provided by the Mathematica software are what led him to believe that it was possible to create Alpha.

One of Wolfram's goals was to make it possible "to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer" [source: Wolfram]. But natural language processing isn't easy. According to Wolfram Research, the Web site uses algorithms and analyzing software to identify patterns in data. This helps it identify shorthand terms that people use to ask questions. This helps it guess what you're trying to find when you enter a query in its search box.

As an example, if you type in "GEC," Alpha assumes you're asking about the General Electric Corporation. If you separate the letters with commas, you get musical notes and a visualization of where they are on the keyboard. Click the "Play Notes" link to hear the progression -- and perhaps if you're an American, you can guess which major television network GE is the dominant corporate parent of. Wolfram|Alpha is guessing, by the way in which you enter your search term, what information you're trying to find.

Wolfram Research says Alpha is based on four pillars: data, dynamic computation, natural language understanding and computational aesthetics. The data are handled by Wolfram Research employees. The rest is done on the back end via Mathematica.

To crunch those kinds of numbers, you're going to need serious computer power. Wolfram Research has a supercomputer (really, two of them) built using Dell hardware customized by a company called R Systems. The machine, named R Smarr, is the world's 66th-fastest supercomputer (as of this writing). With 4,608 processor cores, R Smarr can perform 39.6 trillion operations per second. There are 576 quad-core Intel "Harpertown" Xeon chips inside and each R Smarr supercomputer has 65,536 GB of random-access memory, or RAM [source: Shankland].