The Next New Thing?

12/28/2009 12:01 am EST


Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

I’ve found the perfect way to celebrate the new year and new decade. I’ve fallen for Wolfram Alpha. And I’d like to introduce you, get your opinion, your thoughts.

I guarantee it will be the perfect way to start the new year. So, set aside a few quiet moments after reading this column and head to

This Web site was created by Stephen Wolfram—a true “genius”—and acknowledged as such by the McArthur Foundation, which in 1981 made him the youngest recipient of its famed fellowship.

The British-born, Oxford-educated physicist and mathematician got his PhD from Cal Tech at 20. He was an early leader in scientific computing, and working with the complexities and inter-relationships in natural systems. By the late 1980s, he had published Mathematica—a treatise that forms the basis of much of today’s digital computations.

Now, Stephen Wolfram has taken it a step further. His latest project is to make all of human knowledge not only searchable, but immediately “computable” (to use his term) by anyone. Even me.

Here’s an analogy. For many years, corporations have been filing their reports online with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).You could find them at the SEC’s searchable Web site, Edgar. You could look up a company and find out anything in its filings—sales, earnings, profit margins, depreciation, executive compensation. But you couldn’t do much with that knowledge, except manually input the numbers into your spreadsheet.

Only in the past few years has the SEC changed the game, by requiring corporations to file using a new searchable, interactive format known as XBRL. Now, analysts who use a special XBRL reader tool can instantly compare and search all the data in all those reports. With a click, you could find all companies that have revenues over $1 billion, with pre-tax profit margins over 9%—and then compare the compensation they pay to executives!

The use of this kind of interactive data has opened entirely new doors to the information about public companies and has put powerful institutional-level screening tools in the hands of individuals. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what does for the entire body of human knowledge! is a “long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone.” That’s the ambitious mission of this growing project—and it has already made great steps towards that goal. 

I see Wolfram Alpha as a sort of new dimension of human thought and knowledge, beyond the third dimension and well into the fourth. It’s as if I’ve gained instant access into the knowledge of every smarter person who has ever existed—and I’ve co-opted them into expanding the knowledge that exists in my brain, as well as helping me figure out what I don’t know that I don’t know!

I know this may sound a little vague, so let’s make it easy. Just click here for the short video demonstration created by Stephen Wolfram.

Wolfram offers several practical examples of how you can use his program to make all kinds of connections you didn’t know existed and how it can be employed to do practical business and investment research as well.

So, try it out and then come back and post your comments. Happy New Year everyone, and happy new dimension!

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