Wolfram Alpha Bologna Conundrum

Like many people over the last couple of days, I’ve headed over to Wolfram Alpha to see this new engine that will supposedly provide definitive answers to factual queries. An ‘answer engine’ as it were, as opposed to Google’s search engine.

It’s early days, and perhaps unfair to start hitting out at the results provided from the system – but then again, if you’re going to make lofty claims you should expect your system to be tested harshly.

The simple query put, by this blogger and many others living in his adopted home-city, was one that highlights some of the greyer areas around supposedly ‘factual’ knowledge. The query was ‘Bologna’, and the answer provided by Wolfram Alpha was ‘Sausage’, though it did have the wits to acknowledge that the search term was also a city.

Now, it may well be the case that to millions of people (an overwhelming majority of whom are American) Bologna is a sausage, but it’s also the case that the reason this particular sausage is called Bologna is because – you guessed it – it comes from the Italian city.

So the first of the grey areas comes up – how do you order your factual knowledge? Which in turn is followed closely by linguistic and cultural considerations. Confronted with an Italian city name, we’re told that it is factually first and foremost a sausage – but to Italians the famous sausage associated with Bologna is known as Mortadella, and throughout Europe (including the U.K and the Republic of Ireland) I’d hazzard a guess that Bologna is not a sausage but a city.

So with something as simple as typing in a city’s name we’re into a minefield of considerations that show us that all facts are equal but some facts are more equal than others, particularly if they’re backed up by some United States Department of Agriculture stats (who regulate ‘bologna’). To put the relationship, though, between the city and the sausage into that classic model, the city is most certainly the chicken, and the sausage but one of its eggs. Something that both Wikipedia and Google don’t seem to have any problem with.

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