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Has Stephen Wolfram made knowledge a searchable commodity?

Stephen Wolfram spoke with TechRepublic about his work in science and technology, his new book, and how technology is automating the world.

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Stephen Wolfram at the launch of Wolfram|Alpha in 2009.
Image: Wolfram Research

One of the key themes in Stephen Wolfram's career has been the long road to fruition taken by technological advancement. In the beginning, there is often a glimmer of how something might work, or be useful, but it can take years for that vision to become a reality.

For example, computational models for neural networks were invented in the 1940s, and Wolfram worked on them in the 1980s. However, they are only now at a point where they can be utilized in a meaningful way, such as the Wolfram Language Image Identification Project.

"The ideas it's using are not that different than the ideas that I was playing with in 1980," Wolfram said. "But, what makes it possible in that case is a lot of ambient technology that didn't exist back at that time."

Another interest of Wolfram's is the coding of everyday discourse. As he began researching this field to see what had been conducted, he found that most of it was done by philosophers 300 years ago or more. Again, it shows the disconnect between when ideas come about and when they are fully realized.

Even current iterations of some of Wolfram Research's key products such as Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha and the recently announced Wolfram Language are innovations with three decades of development behind them, Wolfram said.

Automating work

Wolfram became a student of physics at a young age, eventually earning a PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech when he was only 20 years old. After he became even more interested in computer science, his began working in a fairly distinct pattern.

"The thing that has turned out to work really well for me — and I've probably done about four or five cycles of this — is do basic science, figure out some principles and ideas and so on, use those ideas in technology, build up a bunch of practical technology, use that technology to understand more about basic science, and then repeat," he said.

Because of his pioneering work in automation, Wolfram and his work are often brought up in conversations around artificial intelligence. While AI is generally regarded as the "mystery thing" behind many tech products, Wolfram said, he believes it is merely continuing the story of technology, which is merely the automation of things we had done by hand before.

Automation in the workforce is a paramount concern at the moment, but Wolfram said it's nothing new.

"If you look at the US workforce from 100 years ago, 80% of it was in agriculture," he said. "Almost none of it is in agriculture anymore because that stuff was automated. There are a large collection of professions, many of whose functions will be automated and probably fairly soon."

In terms of what will the people do when their job is eliminated by automation, Wolfram said that somewhere, someone still has to define the goals of those systems. And, the kind of goals we have had as humans have changed over time.

For some people, he said, the nightmare scenario is that in the future people will simply be sitting around playing video games. But if you look at today's society from the perspective of human society 1,000 years ago, many of the things we do today could be viewed similar to that nightmare scenario.

Automating knowledge

As technology continues to advance and new forms of automation become apparent, Wolfram said that he is interested in how that affects the ways we gather and use information.

"One question is: Our civilization has accumulated a certain amount of knowledge," he said. "There are questions that can be answered on the basis of that knowledge. Can we do that automatically or, do we have to go find an expert and ask them?"

Of course, this is what he has tried to accomplish with Wolfram Alpha. Additionally, he is also interested in automation of programming and he believes we're right on the cusp of being able to program things at a dramatically faster pace.

Certain industry tools have converged between consumer-grade and professional grade - such as video editing software. It's fairly easy for hobbyist video editors to access professional video editing suites.

The same hasn't been done with programming yet, he said, and that's what he wants to accomplish with Wolfram Language. That product is central to the future of the company.

As Wolfram Research continues to move forward, it's undeniable the impact that Wolfram has had on the scientific and technology communities. When asked what advice he'd give to aspiring scientists and technologists, he said it is difficult to give general advice because of how unique each individual is.

But he said two questions to ask are: What are you good at, and what do you like to do? These are actually more difficult to answer than you think.

"I have a, perhaps, optimistic view of the world that for every person there's kind of an optimal niche," he said. "Finding that niche is often quite a puzzle."

In his own words...

If you weren't working in science and technology, what other profession would you love to try?

"The story of my life is I do the things I like to do. I've figured stuff out, run businesses, these are things I like to do. Actually, another story of my life is anything that starts as a hobby doesn't stay as a hobby. There was a time when I used to do business as a hobby and pretty soon I was running companies. There was a different time when I was doing science as a hobby and that turned into a profession too. So, I'm very bad at hobbies from that point of view. I've been lucky in that I've managed to spend my life doing things that are really the things that I want to be doing.

"If I'd lived in a different age when there weren't computers and those kinds of things — I don't know. I think I was, again, lucky to be living at this time when...a number of things, particularly in science had just become possible to do right around the time when I did them, so to speak. Had I lived 100 years earlier or something, they wouldn't have been even close to being doable. The situation not to be in is, your in the Isaac Newton time, 300 years ago, and you figure out that artificial satellites are possible, but then you can't start a rocket launch company in 1687."

What's the best thing you've read lately?

"I'm really bad at reading books. I own maybe 8,000 books or something and my wife has always pointed out that we had to build a house just to accommodate the books... Actually, I happen to be writing a book again, which I thought I might never — I wrote a big book called A New Kind of Science that came out in 2002, and that book took me ten and a half years to write. It was definitely the single most grueling activity that I've undertaken in my life. I consider one of my main achievements with the book in addition to its content was just the fact that I completed it...

"The last few weeks I've been writing a book, which I'm happy to say has been going at like 100 times the rate of A New Kind of Science. It's a very different thing. It's basically a very elementary introduction to the concepts of the Wolfram Language. The question is, what are the minimal set of concepts that you need to understand to be able to become literate with this language. My model was a strange model which is elementary Latin textbooks. There's one approach to teaching language, which is immersive, where you say 'Okay, I'm going to learn French. Let's go to France and not speak a word of English.' Pretty soon you're going to end up learning French. That doesn't work with a dead language like Latin and it doesn't work with a computer language because we can't live our lives purely in a computer language..."

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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