SXSW: Stephen Wolfram Talks Mathematica, Wolfram Alpha Growth

AUSTIN, TX—Stephen Wolfram is jumping aboard the “cloud and mobility” bandwagon.

At this year’s SXSW conference, Wolfram—most famous in tech circles as the chief designer of the Mathematica software platform, as well as the Wolfram Alpha “computation knowledge engine”—demonstrated his upcoming Programming Cloud, and indicated he was developing a mobile platform for engineering and mathematical applications based on the Wolfram programming language built for Mathematica.

“A whole bunch of things that I’ve been working on for 30 years are converging in a very nice way,” he told the audience, before launching into a rather lengthy history of Mathematica’s development. “Given how complicated things in nature are, you might think the programs running them would be very complicated,” he began. As his research progressed, however, he soon found the exact opposite: simple equations and programming could underpin enormously complicated systems.

“I spent the past few decades sort of working through the consequences of this, and it led me to a new science to create all sorts of practical technology,” he said. “Makes one think that maybe there’s one simple program for our whole universe… a tiny, simple program.” Wolfram claims he’s proud of the inventions and patents that have stemmed from his philosophical journey—but he’s also very much focused on advancing his own ventures into new areas.

Based Wolfram’s work with Mathematica, Wolfram Alpha contains more than 10 trillion pieces of data cultivated from primary sources, along with tens of thousands of algorithms and equations. Solving complex math problems is a particular strength: simply type one into the search bar, and the system produces an answer. You can even type in a random genetic base-pair sequence (“TCTAGATCT”) and the platform will do its best to find its actual position within the human genome.

“For years, I thought that it would require building something like a brain” is how Wolfram described Wolfram Alpha’s development. “You can’t just forage it from the Web, you have to interact with all the primary sources and curate them to the point where it can be reliable used to compute from.”

Most people, he added, have questions that “aren’t answered by retrieving a bit of data, you have to do the calculations.” It took a lot of Mathematica code to make the Wolfram Alpha system work, along with the development of technology that lets the platform actually decode users’ structured-language queries.

In the future, if all goes well, Wolfram Alpha will become more anticipatory of peoples’ queries. “People generally don’t understand all the things that Wolfram Alpha can do,” Wolfram told the audience. His researchers are also working on a system modeler tool, which will allow researchers to simulate complex devices with tens of thousands of components; in theory, you could even use such a platform for 3D printing. Wolfram also wants to set Wolfram Alpha loose on documents, with the ability to apply complex calculations to, say, company spreadsheets.

Wolfram offered a preview of the Programming Cloud, and suggested that a future version of Wolfram Alpha will allow calculations to take place on mobile devices. “Some of Wolfram’s capabilities are starting to fit into some very cheap hardware,” he said. Thanks to the increased power of embedded processors, “you can run the whole Wolfram language right on there.” As sensors become more ubiquitous, his researchers and engineers are also hard at work on what he termed a “general connections hub,” which will presumably leverage and analyze sensor-derived datasets.

“I originally built Mathematica for a very selfish reason: I wanted it for myself,” he said. “I wanted to make it broad enough to handle any sort of calculation I’d want to do.” But as the platform has grown (requiring a huge amount of work just to maintain some sort of design discipline), it’s proven just as useful for a whole host of engineers, mathematicians, students and researchers.


Image: Nick Kolakowski

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