First things first, Wolfram Alpha isn't a search engine - it's a computational knowledge engine. At a launch event today, its creator Stephen Wolfram unveiled his intelligent global reference library and promised a free, live public version within weeks.
During a live webcast, Wolfram demonstrated Wolfram Alpha works, answering natural (English) language questions with data culled from dozens of sources and computed fresh for each query.
According to ZDNet, Wolfram said, "What we're trying to do is take all the things that can be computed about the world and try and package it to the point where we can just walk up to a web site and have it deliver the knowledge we'd like to have. It will understand what you are talking about, do the computation and present to you results."
Massive computer brain
At the heart of Wolfram Alpha are data streams - some free, some licensed - that have been assessed and categorised by either humans or automated systems.
On top of this are 5 to 6 million algorithms to manipulate the various data sources (based on Wolfram's commercial Mathematica computational software for scientists), and enough linguistic smarts to be able to understand your question and deliver comprehensible answers.
In the demonstration, results were rarely purely textual, instead delivering graphs, charts and other graphical elements. Sources will be footnoted where possible. There will also be links out to traditional search engines and Wikipedia.
Wolfram Alpha will be both ad-supported and rely on corporate sponsorship, and will have various types of APIs available for mash-ups.