WolframAlpha, the new whatchamacallit from Stephen Wolfram, is up and running. It’s also stumbling: I’ve gotten a fair number of error messages. But now is not the time for nitpicky griping. I just want to say bravo to the whole idea.
I applaud because Alpha invites us to use a computer for actual computing. Did you know that this machine that brings you YouTube and Facebook can also evaluate integrals and calculate correlation coefficients? What a thought!
I have ranted elsewhere about the sad decline of casual, inquisitive programming, and the lack of tools that will draw more people into that mode of exploring their world. WolframAlpha is not exactly the answer to my plea. It is a powerful computational tool cleverly disguised as a mild-mannered search engine. You’re not writing programs; you’re just “searching” for the roots of x2 + x – 1 or the limit of (1 + 1/n)n as n goes to infinity or the sine of 1050. I have a feeling that this search-engine metaphor may wear thin pretty quickly, but it may also serve its obvious purpose—breaking down barriers for those who wouldn’t dream of writing a line of Python or Lisp but who are masters of Google.
WolframAlpha is not the first thing of its kind. (My Sage friends will be quick to point out that they have had an online notebook interface up and running for a couple of years.) I’ve only just begun to explore Alpha, and I’m sure there are both treasures and pitfalls I haven’t glimpsed yet. Still, for the moment, I just want to cheer it on.