Sunday, June 10, 2012

All you questions answered

Have you ever wanted a system that answers almost your every factual question at home and on the go. For example:-

  • What day is the day after tomorrow
  • What is DCXCV – 25
  • What is the cheapest toaster
  • What is brown minus red
  • Who stared in Desperate Housewives season 1

Wolfram Alpha is an online system that answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from structured data, rather than redirecting users to reference material potentially containing solutions. So unlike Google, this system looks within. It does this by considering a great deal of information ranging from every weather data point ever collected to the chemical structure of nearly every compound to the names of the notes in a D minor chord, and just about anything else that matters - colours, sports games, shopping, language, etc etc etc. It's not so much a search engine as it is a "knowledge engine."

You submit questions and computation requests via a text field and the system computes answers and relevant visualizations from a knowledge base of curated, structured data. Alpha thus differs from semantic search engines, which index a large number of answers and then try to match the question to one.

Wolfram Alpha is built on Wolfram's earlier flagship product, Mathematica, which encompasses computer algebra, symbolic and numerical computation, visualization, and statistics capabilities. The answer usually presents a human-readable solution. Wolfram Alpha is based on the computational platform Mathematica, written by British scientist Stephen Wolfram in 1988.

This thing is so versatile that Apple even integrated some of Wolfram Alpha's basic functionality with Siri to give factual answers to the user's questions. Guys, give this a go.
An iPhone app is also available.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

One-child policy and Social engineering

Today we read about a Chinese couple that paid a record fine of 1.3 million yuan ($210,450) to avoid the country's one-child policy and have a second baby. China has had a one-child policy since the end of the 1970s, enforced by the country's network of neighbourhood committees and some 300,000 family planning officials. The population-control policy, however, is tested as China’s actual birth rate is estimated at 1.8 children per couple because of exemptions and lawbreakers.

It not difficult to let the mind wonder when reading these types of articles – for example, the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments studying the willingness of people to obey instructions from an authority figure to perform acts that conflicted with one’s personal conscience. And on a lighter said, Aldous Huxley, with his novel, Brave New World, and Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984.

Social engineering occurs when a centralized power tries to manipulate or override people’s preferences to make them behave according to an artificial social blueprint. It is the opposite of allowing a culture to evolve naturally according to the preferences of individuals, which are often based on economic factors, such as what they can afford. Social engineering imposes rules, sometimes by dangling carrots, sometimes by wielding sticks.

The Chinese have suggested that the policy has been directly responsible for reducing its population by as many as 300 million to 400 million people, a claim that has been disputed by some academics.

There are exemptions for ethnic minorities, for families where both parents were single children themselves and for couples in the countryside whose first child is a girl. As well, a growing number of rich families now choose simply to pay the fine, which is a multiple of between three and 10 times the average after-tax income in the city where they live.