Since most mediatech people don't, I assume, read the uncategorisable but definitely fringey political musings of Mencius Moldbug over at Unqualified Reservations you probably won't spot when he comes up with an interesting point about mainstream consumer technology. But today he does. Here's Mencius on Wolfram Alpha:
"every decade since the '80s, billions of dollars and gazillions of man-hours have been invested in this fundamental error, to end routinely in disaster. It's as though the automotive industry had a large ongoing research program searching for the perpetual-motion engine.
The error is that control interfaces must not be intelligent. Briefly, intelligent user interfaces should be limited to applications in which the user does not expect to control the behavior of the product. If the product is used as a tool, its interface should be as unintelligent as possible. Stupid is predictable; predictable is learnable; learnable is usable.
I was reminded of this lesson by a brief perusal of Wolfram Alpha, the hype machine's latest gift. Briefly: there is actually a useful tool inside Wolfram Alpha, which hopefully will be exposed someday. Unfortunately, this would require Stephen Wolfram to amputate what he thinks is the beautiful part of the system, and leave what he thinks is the boring part.
WA is two things: a set of specialized,
hand-built databases and data visualization apps, each of which would
be cool, the set of which almost deserves the hype; and an intelligent
UI, which translates an unstructured natural-language query into a call
to one of these tools. The apps are useful and fine and good. The
natural-language UI is a monstrous encumbrance, which needs to be taken
out back and shot. It won't be."
(Oh, is he actually right? Partly. The big trick with Google isn't that the search technology is especially smart - although is is - but that it has been positioned as a source of definitive knowledge. Google is no such thing - it is a probabilistic system. At best it is only probably right. But humans aren't wired to trust probabilistic systems, so pitching Google as a source of definitive knowledge is way, way smarter than merely programming the thing to - probably - be right all the time. Wolfram isn't pitched as anything of the sort. It looks and feels and most crucially is described and therefore thought of as something that's pretty smart. "Pretty smart" is a nice parlour trick for a computer to pull off. But that's about all you can say for it.)