In our fast paced world, it seems that every new technology gets overturned every few years or so.
Just look at social networking – it used to be MySpace, then Facebook, now it’s Twitter (I’m sure by the time I publish this column, Twitter will even be passé…)
But there has (at least for the time being) been a stable anchor in our technology world – Google. Everybody knows that you enter what you’re searching for, and Google provides relevant webpages that give you the information you want. It’s almost as if it’s been around forever (at least in technology years…), and it’s even become a verb – people can actually “google” something…
But now, there is a new knowledge engine on the block, called Wolfram|Alpha (www.wolframalpha.com). It’s similar to and different from Google in what you can do with it.
You can still enter a search term like “weather new york city”, and Wolfram|Alpha will provide you information. However, while Google will provide you a list of links to go seek the information you want, Wolfram|Alpha actually calculates new and more immediately relevant information for you – on the fly.
You’ll get the temperature, conditions, relative humidity, and wind speed, but Wolfram|Alpha will also generate week histories and forecasts for the temperature and conditions, as well as provide a historic temperature graph for today’s date for the last 40 years. It will even provide the closest local weather station and compare that with other locations in the area.
It is indeed a new kind of knowledge engine, and an ambitious undertaking. According to the website, “Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.”
But none of this is surprising, coming from its creator, Stephen Wolfram.
Born in 1959, Wolfram studied at Eton, Oxford, and Caltech. His first scientific paper, called “Hadronic Electrons?”, was accepted for publication when he was just 15, and he graduated for Caltech with a PhD in theoretical physics at 20.
His work had such a profound impact on the physics community (one of his widely-cited papers on heavy quark production was published at the age of 18) that he joined the Caltech faculty immediately upon receiving his doctoral degree. A year later, Wolfram became the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Prize Fellowship.
While at Caltech, he began the creation of SMP, the first modern computer algebra system, which was commercially released in 1981. He spent the next several years in academia, first at Caltech, then at Princeton, and finally at the University of Illinois. However, his scientific pursuits did not follow the standard track for a physicist – he set out on his own path toward finding the fundamental origins of complexity.
After publishing numerous classic papers on simple computational systems known as cellular automata, he went on to found his own company called Wolfram Research.
There he created Mathematica, probably the most significant achievement in technical computing to date (I even used an early version of Mathematica to perform a little of my thesis work…). Rather than having different toolkits for different technical jobs, such as computer algebra systems, graphing calculators, or 3D visualization, Mathematica creates a unified computational framework for technical development. It has changed the way scientists and technologists perform their work.
Through the course of his development of Mathematica, learning more and more about how computation relates to the complexity we see in our world, Wolfram embarked upon his most ambitious project – publication of his treatise A New Kind of Science.
Starting from examination of very simple computer experiments, Wolfram explains in NKS how simple computational programs can generate incredible complexity, debunking the primary scientific belief that only complex models can create such complexity.
Wolfram goes on, as described in the book’s summary, to use his approach “to tackle a remarkable array of fundamental problems in science, from the origins of apparent randomness in physical systems, to the development of complexity in biology, the ultimate scope and limitations of mathematics, the possibility of a truly fundamental theory of physics, the interplay between free will and determinism, and the character of intelligence in the universe.”
Of course, Wolfram hasn’t stopped there. He created an application called WolframTones, which uses computational algorithms to generate original music stylings that can be downloaded to cellphone ringtones. And now, he’s created Wolfram|Alpha, a computational knowledge engine intended to complement (if not rival) Google in its impact.
As we witness the next technological advances, we’ll continue to be amazed by what we enable computers to do. With Wolfram|Alpha and his other monumental achievements, Stephen Wolfram is blazing a new trail in defining what is possible.