The July/August 2009 issue of Technology Review has a long article, entitled Search Me, about a new kind of search engine pioneered by Stephen Wolfram, the founder of Mathematica - a well-known "technical and graphical software for mathematicians, scientists and engineers". The search engine, which launched in May, is called Wolfram Alpha and has received significant attention in the mainstream press, including The Economist (The Search is On, May 14, 2009), and in engineering blogs such as Mike Trick's (Careful with Wolfram Alpha, July 31, 2009).
The article in The Economist describes Wolfram Alpha as "a search engine that computes answers instead of looking them up". Wolfram himself describes his brain child not as a search engine but as a "computational knowledge engine", best suited for queries that lend themselves to mathematical computations, such as counting the calories in a recipe. It also takes advantage of Wolfram's excellent graphics software.
As an example, if you type IBM and Apple into Google, you will return this: over thirty-nine million of pages where the names IBM and Apple appear and have been indexed by Google's bots as they crawled the web. But if you type IBM and Apple into Wolfram Alpha, you obtain that: a detailed analysis of IBM's and Apple's stock returns, complete with latest trades, fundamentals, recent returns, relative price history, performance comparisons, correlation matrix, and even six-month, one-year or two-year projections using random walk models.
Wolfram's search engine relies on "curated data", i.e., data that a team of experts has "amassed, scanned, processed" to use in computations; this is in sharp contrast with the traditional approach, which collects as much information as possible and spits it out in the same exact form in query results. Technology Review states that only over the past year or so have search engines begun to evolve, for instance recognizing addresses, phone numbers or restaurants through the use of tags.
More recently, Microsoft launched a new search engine, Bing, which is supposed to "organi[ze] its results in terms of relevant groups rather than a series of links" (Economist.com, The Invention Machine, May 29, 2009). For instance, if you type Paris, you will get this - notice the headers "Paris Weather", "Paris Map" and "Images for Paris". But if you type Paris in Google, you will get that, which, dare I say, is just as well, with its maps and images at the top, and its "news results for Paris", "book results for Paris" and "video results for Paris" lower in the page. According to Economist.com, however, Bing is believed to have some semantic-technology capabilities, although it is not clear whether it is currently using them.
Besides mathematics and engineering, computational knowledge engines could be most useful for "specialist fields, such as medicine or law, where the terminology is limited". The Economist.com journalist imagines a day where a chemist faced with expiring drug patents will find other uses for his equipment by typing a query into a semantic search engine. While this sounds a bit naive (if everyone can find business opportunities by asking a computer, the new opportunities will quickly disappear), the journalist also describes a fascinating demonstration of "deep content analysis", the next step in web searches ("far more impressive than Wolfram Alpha"), which will help machines "understand the complete and unambiguous meaning of human sentences".