I like to think of science as the process of discovering or creating knowledge. Sure it has many other definitions, but to me, in its most basic form science generates information, and that information is understood and communicated by humans as knowledge.
An engine, on the other hand, is often described as a machine for converting any of various forms of energy into mechanical force and motion. But further definitions include an engine as something used to effect a purpose or computer software that performs a fundamental function especially of a larger program.
It is this latter definition that was the likely use of naming Wolfram Alpha a “Knowledge Engine.” However, it is the second one, something used to effect a purpose, that I particularly like.
An oldie but a goodie: Wolfram Alpha shows data in a way Google can’t.
Reading the above story about the so-called knowledge engine named Wolfram Alpha (abbreviated W|A), it made me wonder about the pros and cons of of what I like to call recreational data mining.
The classic web search engines of the past decade and a half gave anyone using the net access to a huge number of resources about almost any subject. The read-write web of the past few years allowed one to fill in the gaps with known information thus adding to the overall body of net-based knowledge. Image databases and mapping interfaces further pushed the level of information mashing. But Wolfram Alpha is yet another leap forward.
Having played with W|A on and off since it went live on online, I’ve found it an interesting way to explore subjects, or rather the intersection of subjects. Considering the potential of recreational data mining, it would be interesting to have a place where curious results could be published. The danger, of course, is there might not be a useful or even rational connection between the searched subjects that were forced together possibly against their will. But if science is the creation or discovery of knowledge, then using W|A is, in fact, science.
Like all emerging tech, early adopting educators test-drove the tech then posted their adventures and observations online. W|A is no exception. Here’s a W|A education discussion board: The Education Community Forum for Wolfram Alpha.
Even as science educators get up to speed with W|A, the next generation of products is already on the way. Given Wolfram’s origins within mathematics software, math was the natural place to start, but science topics are on the list as well. What am I talking about? Why Wolfram Course Assistant Apps of course.
But like many of our digital dilemmas—including spell check, electronic calculators, digital balances, GPS, and GO-TO telescopes—that all rudely displaced their ancestors, questions arose that directly addressed the very nature of why we do what we do. For instance: Wolfram education apps raise teaching dilemma.
Another definition of an engine is “something that produces a particular and usually desirable result.” Hopefully the future of relational databases will pursue this definition as well. But alas, there is yet another definition for engine, and although an obsolete usage of the word, its etymology might be something to keep in mind—“engine: a torture implement.”