It’s early days and this isn’t meant to be a carefully considered review of Wolfram’s “computational knowledge engine”. Rather, I just want to point out, for the benefit of anyone who might not yet know, that one small part of what it does is genuinely useful in a certain circumstance that comes up from time to time. Suppose that for some reason you want a list of primes, or to know to 100 decimal places, or the 100th power of 2. Previously I would have used Google for the first two, banking on someone somewhere having put the information online, and I might have struggled to understand just enough Mathematica to do the third. (However, I have just discovered that powers of 2 can also be found quite easily with the help of Google, so a more complicated example might be needed.)

Anyhow, with Wolfram Alpha one can type in some reasonable text such as “The first hundred powers of 2″ or “pi to 100 places” and it works out what you mean and gives you the answer. That alone won’t change my life, but it is convenient and it will occasionally help me with things like preparing lectures for a general audience, which I think is just about enough to make it worth it to me to bookmark the site, though I haven’t yet done so. It will also sketch graphs and simplify mathematical expressions without one having to learn any special language to put them in — you just guess what to write and if your guess isn’t too perverse it can work out what you mean.

What else does it do? Typing in “father of Barack Obama” gives “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input”. Just typing “Barack Obama” gives you his full name and his date and place of birth. Typing “England” gives you various basic facts about England. Typing “capital of Uruguay” gives you Montevideo and various facts such as its population, current weather, etc. After noodling about like this for a short time, I did what any non-saint would do and typed in my own name. To be precise, I typed in “Gowers”. The result was “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input”, together with the helpful suggestion that perhaps I had meant “powers”.

I think that gives a fairly good idea of what it does and what it doesn’t do. Perhaps one should regard the latter as a truly positive and innovative aspect of Wolfram Alpha: a New Kind of Search Engine (or whatever it should be called) that doesn’t waste hours of your time by tempting you to look yourself up.