Wolfram Alpha is a search engine which serves up formatted answers to questions rather than provide just a list of links.
What needs to be fixed? A lot.
While it's fun to play with Wolfram Alpha, unless you're a mathematician or a scientist you're not going to get a great deal out of it in its current iteration. Because much of the information that appears in its pages is apparently derived from "Wolfram|Alpha curated data," there is a lot - a whole lot - it can't find or understand.
We tested Wolfram Alpha about five days before it was set to launch, and it didn't take much to find its limits. Too many times, the simplest query (such as "kidney cancer") brought up the message "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." "PC Advisor" got the same response.
One thing that the company suggests you try as a test of the engine is to type in your home town. I live in Brooklyn, New York - a place that is, I believe, not unknown to either mapmakers or movie directors - and so I typed "Brooklyn" into the search engine. The best guess that Wolfram Alpha was able to come up with was Brooklyn, Connecticut. It also suggested (as a possible alternative) Brooklyn, Ohio. There is a "more" drop down menu (in case the first alternative isn't enough) which listed Brooklyns in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa. When I finally typed in "Brooklyn, NY," I got a page comparing the populations and elevations of Brooklyn, Conn. and NY State.
Ornithologists may also find Wolfram Alpha rather frustrating: a search on "blue heron" got me the scientific names and the taxonomy of the bird, but nothing about its flight path, physical characteristics, call, reproductive habits or any other pertinent information. A search on "mockingbird" was a bit more successful; it included other names by which the bird was known, but not much more information.
Wolfram does include a source listing for Wolfram Alpha entries, but there's no indication which specific facts come from where. A rather spare entry about Napoleon Bonaparte included (when we clicked on "Source information") a general list of references that included both the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. But the primary source was "Wolfram/Alpha curated data."
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