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Owl in flight
Wolfram Alpha is a super cool question-answering system. Ask it about something factual, and it’ll offer up whatever specific info it has — such as the dimensions of a #10 screw or a definition of “20/50 vision” (including an eye chart fuzzed out at the right line!) Wolfram Alpha can also answer queries that require it to collect together, parse and compare bits of data, such as finding the “10 nearest stars” or comparing the populations of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily.
But what happens when you ask it a metaphysical question? I tried the query above — “Does God exist?” — and cracked up at the answer:
I’m sorry, but a poor computational knowledge engine, no matter how powerful, is not capable of providing a simple answer to that question.
Good to know Skynet’s on board with the non-overlapping magisteria, eh? Interestingly, this is not a stock answer that the engine kicks out whenever it cannot parse a question. (Actually, the stock answer seems to be “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure how to compute an answer from your input” — which is what you get when you ask, for example, “Why is Nickelback so awful?”) No, the God question was clearly anticipated by the Wolfram people, who inserted this nice little easter egg. (No pun intended. No epistemological allegory intended?)
It also turns out Wolfram Alpha has a number of other great easter eggs. For example, if you ask it “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?” the result is pretty awesome. (I got this latter example from Mashable, which compiled a list of the best 10 they could find.)
I also enjoyed typing in my name — Clive Thompson — at which point Wolfram Alpha assumed I was asking about the town of Clive in Iowa and the town of Thompson in New York; it described their relative populations, plotted them on a map, and calculated that it would take 1 hour and 50 minutes to fly from “Clive” to “Thompson.”
I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).
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