What does Wolfram Alpha do?

I heard about Wolfram Alpha through a variety of news articles such as this one (from a couple of months back). It is still a bit unclear to me precisely what this product does. What I have managed to figure out so far is that this is an engine that accepts queries in some subset of natural language and tries to perform a certain level of ‘understanding’ in order to answer the queries. The news articles suggest similarities with Powerset and other start-ups I had heard about from some of my colleagues who considered taking jobs in this area. However, reading between the lines, Wolfram seems to promise something more in the direction of calculations. My current best guess is a nice interface to the core technology of something like Mathematica so that the net effect is an “intelligent computation engine”.

I have requested access through the Wolfram web site. Let us see if I get to play with it and, if I do, what the details look like…

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