Kathy sent me some information about a new tool from Wolfram (the people that make Mathematica). It is called Wolfram Alpha and promises to change the way we use the internet for research. At the moment there is more hype than actual information but Kathy saw a demo and was impressed. Basically it looks like a search engine but instead of just searching for websites with keywords it will take questions in natural language and return answers, provided the data is available, even if no-one has addressed that question before.
There is clearly a huge market for such a tool. Currently there is a ton of data out there on the internet - but unless someone has already asked your question you are out of luck in getting a quick easy answer. Say I want to know the relationship between seed size and mature plant size, or how stomatal density varied over the Cenozoic, or how VO2 max varies with animal body size. Unless someone has already asked these questions I would be left to combine data sets on my own. If this product lives up to its promise it will present the data to me - and in graphical form. Cool. I'm sold. I like the last line in the blog posting:
I think it’s going to be pretty exciting. A new paradigm for using computers and the web.
That almost gets us to what people thought computers would be able to do 50 years ago!