The future of computation

Wolfram|Alpha is difficult to explain. If you’ve heard about it before, you’re probably either a scientist, a teacher, or a student looking to expedite some math homework. See whether it’s the next big breakthrough in computer science or just a cheat-sheet for calculus homework.

At first glance, Wolfram|Alpha seems indistinguishable from Google. There’s a search bar where you can type in questions, and then the software spits out an answer. But while Google simply combs the web and gives you a vast array of possible answers to your question, Wolfram|Alpha is much more precise. Using AI technology and access to a vast and ever-growing database of information, Wolfram|Alpha actually calculates the answers to your queries and gives you the answer.

The software also makes excellent use of natural language detection. You can write in a question, from “What is the square root of pi?” to “How common is the name Russ?” and it will give you back exact formulas, data points, and visualizations. You can enter “Flights overhead” and it will run calculations to give you the flight number, elevation, and angle of any planes flying over your location.

The possibilities with Wolfram|Alpha feel more or less endless. It is definitely focused on STEM, in particular running mathematical calculations. But the data that it runs calculations on run from physics to finance, linguistics to personal health. It’s genuinely impressive and good for more than just doing your math homework.

That being said, if you look at any of the reviews for the app or website, you will see that it is primarily used by students for their math homework. Teachers have publicly expressed concern, even dismay, over the fact that it students can use Wolfram|Alpha to get answers to math questions in seconds and is almost impossible to trace. You’re able to enter in even highly complex problems and equations, and Wolfram|Alpha will spit out the exact answer as well as all the steps involved in the calculation.

It will give you the steps, that is, if you pay. While you can access the basic features for free online, in order to use the app or get certain advanced features, you do have to pay a monthly subscription of $6.99 on the Apple app or $5.49 for the pro web version. These are worth it if you have a professional need for more advanced calculations or for schoolwork. For most users, the free web version will suffice.

At the very least, Wolfram|Alpha is a curiosity. It may be of little practical use if you’re not working in STEM. But even for the layman, the app’s innovation and computational power make it feel like a sneak peek at the next chapter of the information age.

Wolfram|Alpha is available on Google Play and the App Store.

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