March 23, 2009
Wolfram Alpha: A New Kind of Question-Answering System
There has been much excitement recently over the upcoming launch of Wolfram Alpha. This is a new question-answering system developed by Stephen Wolfram, inventor of Mathematica, and it is scheduled for a beta launch in May. Wolfram has been providing demos to industry insiders. I haven’t had a demo yet, but I have learned what I could from reading articles by Nova Spivak (“Wolfram Alpha computes answers to factual questions. This is going to be big”) and Doug Lenat (“I was positively impressed with Wolfram Alpha”). And this weekend I spoke with William Tunstall-Pedoe, CEO of True Knowledge, who also got a demo. Many of my examples and conclusions come from conversation with William (thanks!). Since life is short and so is the attention of web readers, I’ll give the rest of my thoughts in bullet form.
What it is: A new kind of question-answering system.
- Math: “2+2″ and then a few simple math questions: “integrate xsin^4xdx”, “what is the square root of 18″ etc.
- Business: “gdp france” showed amount and graph of how it changed over time. “gdp france/germany” showed graph with both amounts and the ratio
- “internet users in Europe”: Showed total, and a chart of usage by country in Europe, at the current time, specifically highlighting the biggest and smallest
- “ISS”: generates a graphic rendition of the international space station orbiting earth and updating in real-time
- “tides in san Francisco”: showed a graph of tides over time, where the times were listed in the local time regime current in the late 19th century for those data points. “tide NYC 11/12/1922” gave a single answer.
- “weather”: showed graph of average temperature in Cambridge, MA (where Stephen was when doing the demo). Based on reverse IP lookup.
- Computational fluid dynamics: typing in the name of a specific aerofoil produced a picture of that aerofoil along with its differential equations.
- stock prices: “MSFT CSCO” showed comparison chart
- chemicals: Substances at temperature or pressure, got physical properties calculated. “H2SO4” showed a diagram and chemical properties. “5 molar h2s04″ did something cool, I don’t know what.
- genome sequences: “AGTAG” shows sequences from the human genome that match that pattern
- data about people: “How old is Barack Obama” gives his age now. “When was Alan Turing born” gives the answer. “How old is Alan Turing” (a trick question) gives an error message with no human-readable explanation (True Knowledge, by contrast, tells you exactly why this is a trick question).
Coverage of data: It answers questions over the following types of structured data:
- static tables and databases (e.g. a database of internet usage by country by year)
- dynamic data feeds (e.g. historical stock market data, position of space shuttle, weather)
- numerical inference (e.g. math questions)
- numerical computations and simulations (e.g. tides, astronomy, chemistry)
November 4, 2006
Amazon Web Services and Powerset in Business Week article
Rob Hof at Business Week just came out with an article called Jeff Bezos’s Risky Bet. The article talks about Amazon’s Web Services initiative, in which Amazon is enabling other companies to take advantage of the massive technology infrastructure Amazon has developed to power its own operations:
Amazon has spent 12 years and $2 billion perfecting many of the pieces behind its online store. By most accounts, those operations are now among the biggest and most reliable in the world. “All the kinds of things you need to build great Web-scale applications are already in the guts of Amazon,” says Bezos. “The only difference is, we’re now exposing the guts, making [them] available to others.”
This article was the first to announce that Powerset is one of the major early customers for Amazon’s new Electric Compute Cloud (EC2) Web service. Here are the relevant paragraphs, which mention Powerset and some of our key angel investors:
August 4, 2005
VC Taskforce on Next-Gen Tools in Global Software Development
Emerging Technology Forum
July 28, 2005
Software complexity has been steadily on the rise. Some persistent problems have dogged programmers for 60 years, and still need solutions. New problems arise as the landscape changes. What are the opportunities and maintenance challenges ahead as teams work faster and collaborate across different time zones, languages, and countries? What areas might be investable? This panel of experts will explore these questions and new developments in a spirited discussion on the state of software development.
- John Mashey, Techviser, briefly reviews the history of software
development tools, environments, and productivity aids, emphasizing
especially those environmental changes that create new opportunities.
- David Hartford, CEO of N8 Systems, and previously a
VC, will discuss his company’s solutions to getting requirements right,
a difficult, expensive old problem whose solution is even more critical
when doing distributed development.
- Steve Mezak, CEO, Accelerance, will discuss
experience with his company’s global outsourcing methodologies and
tools, with teams in 14 different countries, and a wide variety of
- Sam Jadallah, Partner, Mohr Davidow Ventures, previously VP at
Microsoft will discuss the current investment landscape for software.
This document contains my notes taken as an audience member attending this
panel discussion. While it might look like a transcript, and I attempt to
capture everything in real-time, I do also interpret, paraphrase and
summarize as I type.
Personally, I thought this was a great discussion, and one that should be
shared with entrepreneurs, investors, vendors and customers in the software
development community. I worked hard to make this article readable so that
others can benefit.
Highlights and take-aways:
John Mashley pointed out that, independent of all the improvements in
software development tools, individual programmer productivity is always
nonuniform. Some programmers are 10 or even 100 times as productive as
This has negative and positive implications for outsourcing. On the
negative side, if you can assemble a crack team of programmers locally who
are 10x more productive than you can find offshore, then you actually
lose economic value by outsourcing. On the positive side, some of the
best developers are not local. So despite the hassle, and even if the
labor rates are not much different, you can gain economic productivity by
taking advantage of these fine programmers wherever they live (whether in
India or on a boat in the Carribean).
While outsourcing is increasingly becoming an imperative for businesses,
the results of outsourcing are often disappointing. Steve Mezak discussed 7 major
categories of mistakes in outsourcing and listed potential solutions
(including methodologies and tools) for each.
A recurring theme in the panel was the difficulty and importance of
getting software requirements right. Despite all the improvements in tools
and processees for developers, there have been limited improvements in the
way people create and validate the requirements in the first place. Errors
in requirements ripple through the downstream flow and get more expensive
to fix the later they are caught. N8′s David Hartford brought up the
statistic that requirements errors cost US companies $100 Billion per
year in rework and cancelled projects alone. Steve Mezak listed a new
generation of companies (including N8) that address different aspects of the
requirements problem in different ways. I am very familiar with N8′s
Scenario product that David discussed and demonstrated at the meeting. I
think it has the potential to address the requirements engineering problem
in a substantial way for the first time. (I intend to write more about
this in a separate post).
There was consensus that distributed development is now working. This has
been one of the biggest problems with outsourcing, telecommuting, and
large scale projects. There was discussion that open source tools have
matured substantially and are now being integrated into cost-effective
suites. In addition, VoIP (e.g. Skype) has enabled people to maintain open
voice channels all day long at low cost. As Sam Jadallah said:
I have a company with 2 people, on in Silicon Valley, one in
Dublin. Skype sits open all day long, just like two people sitting in
room together all day long talking whenever they want. The tools,
workflow, process, and experience level is now working.
Sam Jadallah’s discussion of VC investment in software development tools
is great reading. His fundamental point is that the internet has changed
the economics of the enterprise software business, and that this changes
the success factors for companies. Big enterprise software companies are
suffering, and most of the large software industry revenues are coming
from maintenance. Sam covers several major trends in software development
and in software business models and provides concrete suggestions for what
software startup companies should do differently. He lists interesting
investment areas for software tools, including: developer productivity,
quality and security, application management, and process improvement.