Stephen Wolfram Hints at Future of Personal Analytics

Wolfram Alpha crunched Facebook data to paint a “portrait” of how people live (at least according to the social network).

Stephen Wolfram, the chief designer of the Mathematica software platform and the Wolfram Alpha “computation knowledge engine,” thinks there’s a future in this whole personal-analytics thing.

In a new interview with MIT Technology Review, Wolfram suggested that personal analytics—in which an individual’s life and habits are recorded as data-points to be mined by an algorithm—have a solid chance of becoming the next big thing.

Wolfram Alpha already features a Personal Analytics for Facebook module, which asks users to contribute detailed Facebook data for research purposes. In April, Wolfram’s researchers offered some insights into the data: the median number of “friends” is 342, for example, while Facebook’s graphical curve for users’ age-at-marriage mirrors that of the U.S. Census.

“The personal analytics of Facebook for Wolfram Alpha is a deployed project, and there will be more of those in the personal-analytics space,” Wolfram told MIT Technology Review. “We think we can do terrific things, but you have to be able to get to the data.” The answer may come in building a whole new system for collecting personal data, rather than rely on existing systems such as Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, Wolfram has been working with unnamed companies “to try and make sure we can connect their sensors to kind of a generic analytics platform, to take people’s data, move it to the cloud, and do analytics on it.”

Wolfram also believes that, in order to accomplish personal analytics at massive scale, organizations will need to install backend infrastructure that can receive and analyze epic amounts of data from multiple sources. That’s in addition to running the data through software capable of handling natural-language queries.

What sort of applications will businesses create from that flood of personal data? Wolfram thinks “memory augmentation” and “pre-emptive information delivery” will emerge as two future uses. Indeed, multiple IT vendors are hard at work on some version of the latter: think of the companies doing their best to tie coupons and discounts to a smartphone user’s current location, or Google Now telling a traveler to leave home a little earlier because of traffic on the highway.

At this year’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, Wolfram offered some additional details about Wolfram Alpha, which offers a single answer (usually numerical) in response to a query typed into its search bar. “People generally don’t understand all the things that Wolfram Alpha can do,” he said. If everything goes according to his desires, Wolfram Alpha could eventually be set loose on documents, with the ability to apply complex calculations to company spreadsheets and other materials. But if this most recent interview is any indication, it seems as if personal analytics could become still another element in the computational engine’s growing footprint.


Image: Wolfram Alpha