Will WolframAlpha make the lazy lazier?

WolframAlpha is launching right now. I just tried a few and see the cheat sheet. The interface is nice and the results were presented beautifully and logically. I’ll definitely use it for its designed purposes and Yahoo for the rest of search queries.

If this type of computational search engine were widely available like it is now when I was in school, I probably would not spend any time trying to solve the problem manually and just punching numbers instead. For example, why should I know one gallon is 128 ounces, 1 acre = 43560 sqft? I suspect the same question can be asked for other search engines, including generic engines like Google and Yahoo. Stupid people will become stupider because of the vast amount of information that is available to consume without any thoughtful digestion.

However, on the other side, the argument can be made to reduce the time we spend on low-end or fundamental computations and focus our effort into solving a bigger problem. This is true when you have a good foundation and already been trained or knew how to get the information. Knowing what is possible is more important than the steps to implement it.

In summary, each generation has a new set of tools that help (or prevent, depending on who you talk to) them to solve problems. My suggestion to kids, students in highschool and university undergraduates is to learn the formulas, the theories and practice them manually with pencil and paper. Then once you really understand them, you can use tools, software to solve them for you. Conversely, if you depends on the tools too early, you will never bother to understand the basics and when a more challenging problem that is beyond the scope of these tools, you’d be screwed and at lost for any direction toward a solution.

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