Stephen Wolfram, the chief designer of the Mathematica software platform and the Wolfram Alpha “computation knowledge engine,” has another massive project in the works—although he’s remaining somewhat vague about details for the time being.
In simplest terms, the project is a new programming language—which he’s dubbing the “Wolfram Language”—which will allow developers and software engineers to program a wide variety of complex functions in a streamlined fashion, for pretty much every single type of hardware from PCs and smartphones all the way up to datacenters and embedded systems. The Language will leverage automation to cut out much of the nitpicking complexity that dominates current programming.
“The Wolfram Language does things automatically whenever you want it to,” he wrote in a recent blog posting. “Whether it’s selecting an optimal algorithm for something. Or picking the most aesthetic layout. Or parallelizing a computation efficiently. Or figuring out the semantic meaning of a piece of data. Or, for that matter, predicting what you might want to do next. Or understanding input you’ve given in natural language.”
In other words, he’s proposing a general-purpose programming language with a mind-boggling amount of functions built right in. Somehow it will knock down the borders between programs and data and output. “Everything becomes both intrinsically scriptable, and intrinsically interactive,” he added in the posting. “And there’s both a new level of interoperability, and a new level of modularity.”
Wolfram plans on creating what he calls a “Programming Playground” that will let developers experiment with the Language, even as he deploys it across his company’s product lines. The next few months will see the deployment of Programing Cloud—which he previewed at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin—as well as the Wolfram Data Science Platform, which will leverage the Wolfram Language towards data analysis. But a firmer roadmap for the Language’s rollout remains elusive at this time.
Wolfram suggests that the seeds of Wolfram Language were planted 25 years ago, when he first launched Mathematica, and that the work on his Wolfram Alpha engine further informed its development. “There’s a fundamental idea that’s at the foundation of the Wolfram Language: the idea of symbolic programming, and the idea of representing everything as a symbolic expression,” he wrote in his blog. “It’s been an embarrassingly gradual process over the course of decades for me to understand just how powerful this idea is.”
At this year’s SXSW, Wolfram alluded to his decades of work coming together in “a very nice way,” and this is clearly what he meant. And while it’s tempting to dismiss anyone who makes sweeping statements about radically changing the existing paradigm, he does have a record of launching very big projects (Wolfram Alpha contains more than 10 trillion pieces of data cultivated from primary sources, along with tens of thousands of algorithms and equations) that function reliably. At many points over the past few years, he’s also expressed a belief that simple equations and programming can converge to create and support enormously complicated systems.
Combine all those factors together, and it’s clear that Wolfram’s pronouncements—no matter how grandiose—can’t simply be dismissed. But it remains to be seen how much of an impact he actually has on programming as an art and science.
Image: Stephen Wolfram