Get ready, because the world as we know it is going to change in May 2009, when Wolfram Alpha—a computational search engine that belongs in the Enterprise's computer—appears, giving you precise answers to everything.
That's what this thing is going to give us: A natural way to plug into the vast pool of information of the internet and ask questions like Kirk does in Star Trek. At least according to Stephen Wolfram—who changed the world of mathematical research with his Mathematica software and, as geniuses go, he's up there with the best—and other scientists who have tried it. The new engine will be able to truly interpret your questions and give you a real, precise answer to them.
It won't use a database of preset questions, however. The engine is designed using extremely advanced algorithms so it truly has the ability to actually understand what you are asking for. So if you type "How many protons are in a lasagna for six people?", the system will be able to recognize, interpret, connect the pieces of available information and give you the answer to the question—provided the question has an answer, of course.
I find this fascinating. An engine that could actually interpret your questions and the information available to give you specific answers is the Holy Grail of information technology. Wolfram doesn't claim Wolfram Alpha will fully achieve this, but he and other scientists are claiming this is a huge step towards that goal. We will have to wait and see how well it works—before Google buys it.
It also reminds me of one of my favorite short stories by Isaac Asimov. In his robot tales, he wrote about humanity inventing a computer to answer questions. The computer will give a lot of answers, but it will never be able to answer the biggest questions of them all: What is the origin of it all?
As it evolved and expanded through the universe, humanity's consciousness became part of the megacomputer. Periodically, first individual people, then a stream of consciousness, will ask that question: What's the origin of it all? No answer will be given after ages computing it except: "Not enough information."
At the end of the tale, the universe is completely dead and dark. By then, the megacomputerhumanity was already in a separate dimension, a huge stream of energy, just thinking about the answer to that question. At the end, the computer finds the answer and says:
'Let there be light.'
And there was light.
In the meantime, we can only hope that nobody asks "what was first, the chicken or the egg?" or we will all go to hell. [Wolfram via Daily Mail]