Wolfram Alpha — not yet ready for church work

I knew this was going to be a stretch, but if I was going to take the new so-called “Google challenger” Wolfram Alpha seriously, it would have to get past its comfort zone of mathematical and financial data. And so far, the new “computational knowledge engine” — a term that’s a bit steampunk to not have depictions of gears or giant squid — doesn’t seem it can. (Neither for church workers or government transparency folk.)

Yes, like other geeks I was entranced by the webcast demo. I was there at 8pm last night, watching the service get born, with all the bumps and jolts that entails. And Gina Trapani — who is a reliable writer in such matters — has some fun examples of searches.

But here are the ones I tried that failed:

  • unitarian universalists usa
  • church buildings in maine
  • harry emerson fosdick quotations
  • flight boston salt lake city
  • fidelity mutual fund
  • protestants in romania
  • 35 increasing 15% per year [I was thinking of the “compound interest” of a rapidly growing family-sized church]

Some searches, related to dates, were more helpful:

  • 3/25/1825 returned facts about the day; it was 67,257 days ago.
  • 9/15/2009 is 17 weeks, 3 days hence, is Software Freedom Day, Britain’s Prince Harry’s 25th birthday and Ramadan 25, 1430 in the Islamic calendar.
  • BOS IAD correctly identified the airports, and measured the distance between them, but said nothing about flights.
  • distance boston salt lake city, likewise, measured the distance.

The only really useful test search — file under self-care — was for “hamburger and fries”, which gave me a generic calorie count with a one-click option for two fast food restaurants’ offerings. The search for great rhombicosidodecahedron is pretty amazing and perhaps useful if your church building is a later-generation geodesic dome. But Google has little to worry about — yet.

(For the political watchers, there’s nothing for bills and “pelosi” gave the House Speaker’s barest biographical information. OpenCongress.org has nothing to worry about either.)

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

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