Wolfram Alpha, the brainchild of Stephen Wolfram (who allegedly put its company to work on this project for several years before its official launch in May this year), has been out for a while now and is probably no more making the headlines. The long list of examples on the frontpage, organised visually or by topic, proudly shows off what Alpha is capable of. The natural language interface may still be a bit sloppy and some data may be flagrantly missing (how about a dump of the world’s scientific literature, Stephen?), but all in all it manages to live up to the promise of a universal tool to compute an impressive amount of factual knowledge. Alpha allows you, among other things, to:
- plot the sky above your head tonight at 3am
- look up your genome for occurrences of a specific sequence
- compare current unemployment rates for countries you would like to move to
- display the taxonomic tree of your favourite bug
- spell boredom in Morse
- disclose the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything
- you can even check your body mass! (am I really 3kg away from my ideal weight?)
Depending on your field of expertise, Alpha is likely to provide a powerful combination of computational tools and relevant data sources to calculate virtually anything you might want to know about the universe.
Apart from technical use, though, I am curious to understand whether and how people will start using Alpha as a productivity tool and integrate it in their daily workflow.
Granted, the title of this post may be overstated, as I am sure there are better ways to use Alpha to work less and live happy. Here’s my take of the 10 best productivity tips I was able to find out, please prove me wrong with better examples and I will add them to the list below.
1. Word count for humans
2. Convert any character
3. Look up URL information
You can display a nice summary of information on site ownership (from WHOIS), popularity (from Alexa) and HTML structure for any given URL.
4. Find English words matching a specific pattern
No more tip-of-the-tongue frustrations! OK, I have to think of an actual use for this one but I am sure that the poets among us will appreciate.
5. Calculate time differences
Ever wondered how much hours are left before light comes through your friend’s window in Tokyo?
6. What’s in a word
Definitions, synonyms, antonyms, word frequency, pronunciation (AmE only though…), hy–phen–a–tion patterns for any word in the English language. I even discovered that “hack” and “adulteress” are neighbours in a synonym network.
7. Where am I?
Check your current network name and IP address.
8. Tame nutritional values
9. Convert currency
Enjoy watching how your purchasing power in Europe kept falling indefinitely over the last months, before showing some timid sign of recovery.
10. Estimate download times
Stay zen when you know that it will take slightly more than one day to download those 90GB with your 7.5Mb/s broadband connection.
Even more ideas
There are plenty of tools and Web services to do most of the above searches, but it’s nice to be able to query anything from a single search field. I obviously can’t wait for the day when the full power of Alpha will be unleashed via its API so as to be mashed with external data sources and applications, or integrated as a clever QuickSilver plugin to put the world’s knowledge at the tip of your fingers. Unfortunately it will take some time before this happens.
In the meantime, if you are looking for inspiration, you can browse the Wolfram Alpha community page: it’s a goldmine of ideas (and a good source of information on some ridiculous flaws and limitations in Alpha).