Thursday, May 21, 2009

WolframAlpha: A New Kind of Site

TechCrunch called Google Squared the imminent Cain to WolframAlpha’s Abel. Dare Obsanajo warns Wikipedia to beware the ides of March, casting WolframAlpha as Brutus.  But, I would cast WolframAlpha in quite a different role: Hamlet.

If you’ve not used WolframAlpha, head over there come back once you’ve exhausted its novelty.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

So, now you know why they call it a “computational knowledge engine” whose mission it is to “make the world’s knowledge computable”.  Ignoring, for the present, the interesting epistemological discussion viz. the validity of that mission, let’s instead talk about why you might use it.

If you are looking for something, go to Google.  This is not a search engine.

If you are looking to mine the web for hard data, be patient, Google Squared will be your guide (when it is baked).

If you would like to learn about a particular topic, Wikipedia stands ready to help you begin.

If you want to apply your existing domain knowledge to posing interesting questions about a wide variety of topics, if you can phrase such questions as nominal computations, then go to WolframAlpha, though your attempts might be frustrated, e.g. it fails to compute the following “annual energy consumption of the average American * projected worldwide population in 2020.”

In other words for 98% of the world, WolframAlpha is simply a curiosity. For the other 2%, it’s only useful as a way to experiment with such questions, since the rigor required of formal academia is not satisfied by simply saying, “WolframAlpha said so.”

To understand WolframAlpha’s raison d'être, you have to understand NKS: Stephen Wolfram’s “New Kind of Science”.  To understand NKS you can either go read the book or trust what I’m about to say.  At its core, the claim it makes to novelty is based on the notion that all phenomena can be viewed as computations, and thus real science can be done by exploring the “universe” of possible computations.  Of course the only apparatus sufficient for doing this “new” science is Wolfram’s own Mathematica program, a program originally created by Dr. Wolfram in a single summer.  Twenty or so years later after leaving academia to build the company that develops and sells Mathematica, Wolfram brought forth the the 1,200+ page tome that is NKS.


Wolfram is no lightweight; we’re talking about one of those few people in the world with the intellectual capacity and training to do modern quantum mechanics at age 17—when it comes to mathematics he is the real McCoy.  But, very few seriously look at NKS as being fundamentally new, and no few academics treat Wolfram with vitriol and ire due to his claim of novelty.  We all—it is universally agreed—stand upon the shoulders of giants.  Further, many argue that NKS contributes nothing new to the existing corpus of mathematics or science.  Here are some notes for the dramaturg:

  • The NKS book was self-published by Wolfram-Media
  • Wolfram opens the book with a statement of his childhood dream to “know everything”
  • NKS is the culmination of twenty years of work outside of academia
  • The precipitating event that put him on that path was his not being able to understand the pattern generated by a cellular automata (simple computer program) he’d written

My personal belief is that the cognitive dissonance created by having not contributed to science in any recognized, significant way over twenty years, in the face of soaring hubris born out of his prodigious intellect and early summiting of some of the highest peaks of academia, forces Dr. Wolfram to eschew—even denigrate—the trappings of mainstream academia and embrace his self-created role of the father of a new kind of science.  But, hey, I don’t know the guy; and it goes without saying that I’m criticizing Michael Jordan’s cross-over.  Maybe it will take twenty years for everyone else to get it; if it is new, it's nascent, and you have to walk before you can crawl.

He may be an egoist, but he has excellent taste.  I think he’d make Edward Tufte proud.

What WolframAlpha owes its life to is the attempt to make NKS immediately relevant in a roundabout way.  Remember, everything—everything—is simply a computation.  Another concept that is critical to understanding WolframAlpha from NKS is “computational equivalence”; essentially this is the reason why NKS doesn’t permit predicting the future: to do that you would need a computer the equivalent of our universe.  Reality, you see, is simply the current result of the continuous computation being performed by the fabric of our universe.  (As strange as that may sound, it is not dissimilar from the beliefs of proponents of the much vaunted string theories of the universe.)

Since we don’t have a computer the size of the world, we can’t calculate everything in reality.  What we can do, though, is examine the current results of the computation, in the form of data that can be collected and mined and extruded by domain experts into an symbolic ontology that is computable by Mathematica.  We can then run computations with these synthetic ontologies, because they can be related via formal ontology of units we have created throughout human history.  To what end?  Well, I suppose that depends on the answers you get.

I hope by now you understand why it is called WolframAlpha.  And, for those lovers of the theater who haven’t yet guessed, here is the cast of characters.

Google Squared

I think it is obvious who plays the role of the murdered king. Ok, I've surely stretched the metaphor a bit too thin, but I really like the notion that these kinds of current events are manifestations of the same archetypes described in our great literature. I think Wolfram would like it too, but I have no doubt his protagonist wouldn't be from one of Shakespeare's tragedies.

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