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Hitchhiker’s Deep Thought Is Online, Answering Your Questions About the Meaning of Life

Hitchhiker’s Deep Thought Is Online, Answering Your Questions About the Meaning of Life” width=”560″/>

A mega computer with the repository of all the world’s knowledge, accessible from anywhere with just one touch of your finger. Sounds familiar to anyone who’s seen The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (or read any of Douglas Adams’s books), but now with the invention of the new web application Wolfram|Alpha, the possibility posited by Adams is very close to reality.

Using algorithms created by Wolfram’s own Mathematica program (a mainstay of computer programming for decades), Wolfram|Alpha does Google one better by allowing any knowledge from any time to be accessible from anywhere. Ask a simple question, and Wolfram|Alpha gives you a simple answer. For example, if you ask, “Who is my father?” (which I childishly posited after “Who’s your daddy?” returned no results) Wolfram|Alpha will spit back a pictorial genealogical tree, as well as every possible definition of the relationship (difference in generations, blood relationship, etc.).

So it’s a new search engine, right? Wrong. According to Theodore Grey (who wrote the terms-of-use language), “We don’t return ‘search results,’ we generate original content including plots and graphs.” Which is all well and good, but then, what’s the point of Wolfram|Alpha? Says Wolfram founder and main architect Stephen Wolfram, it’s to “find a way to make the systematic knowledge that we’ve accumulated in our civilization computable… To find a way to take all that data that’s out there and all the models and methods we know and somehow combine them to somehow compute whatever can be computed about the world.”

That sounds less like Hitchhiker’s actual guide, and more like Deep Thought, the movie’s computer devised to calculate the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. For the record, Wolfram seems to be pretty aware of this. If you ask Wolfram|Alpha, “What is the meaning of life?” it spits back the correct answer: “42.”

Right now, the program is still in the beginning stages of being built, but if we look to its cinematic forbears, the implications are either very positive, or very negative. On the positive side, we have the aforementioned Hitchhiker’s Guide, which deftly guides Arthur Dent in his misadventures through the Universe. On the other end, there’s Eagle Eye, which posits a grand central computer controlling everything in America from traffic lights to cell phones to coffee makers. And lest we forget The Matrix, or SkyNet (from the Terminator movies), which also feature grand central computers that gain access to everyone and everything, causing the global apocalypse.

Wolfram|Alpha isn’t quite there yet. It currently “only” contains 10+ trillion pieces of data, 50,000+ types of algorithms and models, and linguistic capabilities for 1000+ domains. However, Wolfram is expanding the knowledge database and reach of Wolfram|Alpha all the time… Including allowing for the “systematic automation of invention and discovery” — yeah, self-awareness.

What will Wolfram|Alpha discover as it continues to grow and change of its own accord? Will it be a helpful program, like in Hitchhiker’s? Or will it pass judgment upon us all, like in The Matrix? In the immortal words of John Connor, “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves…” unless of course a sentient computer program determines our fate for us.

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