I had two crucial ingredients: Mathematica and NKS. With Mathematica, I had a symbolic language to represent anything—as well as the algorithmic power to do any kind of computation. And with NKS, I had a paradigm for understanding how all sorts of complexity could arise from simple rules.
But what about all the actual knowledge that we as humans have accumulated?
A lot of it is now on the web—in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text.
But we can’t compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can’t figure anything new out
While many dubbed it like a potential Google killer I don't expect from Wolfram|Alpha to be used in mass on the Google scale. Essentially it is not a general searching tool, but is meant to become a tool for "truth discovery". But the truth is that most people are not looking for computable "truth discovery", they are sufficed with finding the facts and then using their own brains to accomodate that data to build their own knowledge base.
I won't be as cynical as Ted Dziuba who wrote :
"That sounds an awful lot like the marriage of some Python scripts with a few hundred bucks spent hiring third world workers through Amazon Mechanical Turk.".
I do believe that people behind Wolfram research are one of the brightest you can find, but still they are numbered and their expertise is limited. Currently we are experiencing shift towards folksonomy and open APIs, semantic distributed web e.t.c. which is as i can understand not the chosen way for Wolfram Alpha project. Still, some believe that their work will be incorporated in the future with other projects like European Large Knowledge Collider
Yesterday after initial March anouncement Wolfram team started new blog covering Wolfram Alpha. From my understanding it is far from being search engine, at present they are not going to crawl intenet pages. Rather it is a closed proprietary expert system with some fancy computational algorithms ala John Conway's Game of Life capable to show results on-the-fly in digestable graphical manner. When Alpha will have web interface I'll take a closer look.
Speaking of search engines and our latest global fever i tried Cuil (almost forgotten another Google-killer) to search for "swine flu" and i was kinda surprised. On the first page i found link pointing to one very good article describing 1976 swine flu case. And another link about recombination of birds and pigs flu virus genes, which dates from 2007, not exactly the last news as you might wrongly infer from the current media frenzy. If you had already encyclopedic info which you can find in Wikipedia those additional pieces are good hits and they are not easily found with general purpose search engines. What this is good for explaining knowledge ? When you have initial base you need the tools for finding more deep knowledge. And this is exactly what is lacking both in Wolfram Alpha project and even upcoming semantic web with all their ontologies. We don't have formal understanding what is "deep knowledge" which could also be adjusted according to the users needs.