Stephen Wolfram: “I Like to Build Alien Artifacts”

From The European:


Stephen Wolfram is the brain behind the “Mathematica” software and the semantic knowledge engine “WolframAlpha”. He studied at Oxford and at the California Institute of Technology, where he received a Ph.D. in particle physics at age 20. Wolfram is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant”, a regular TED speaker, and the author of “A New Kind of Science”, which examines the linkages between artificial and natural computation.

The European: What’s the difference between a search engine like Google, and a computational knowledge engine like WolframAlpha?
Wolfram: With a search engine, you type in a keyword and try to find the best matches. It’s like walking into a library and being handed the ten best books about a topic. What we are trying to do with WolframAlpha is to create custom-created reports to answer specific questions. We are computing answers – even if nobody has ever asked that question before, maybe we can work out a report that answers it. It takes human experts to do that, and that is something that the search engine crowd is often skeptical about. They say that something is only good when it is based on a good algorithm and infinitely scalable. But we are interested in encapsulating the world’s knowledge, not in scalability. Wikipedia is basically a container for random texts written by random people at random times. We can surely do better than that, especially if we want to build something that has different layers and relies on good information. The actual data that we have inside of Wolfram Alpha is now roughly comparable to the textual content of the internet, and much of it comes from primary data sources that are not available online. I find it quite interesting that Google’s search division recently changed its name to “knowledge division.” Sergey Brin used to be an intern with us before he co-founded Google. We have had many good discussions, and I like to think that the name change came out of those.

…The European: Is that your purpose, to think about human progress?
Wolfram: I suppose my crazy way of expressing a purpose is to say that I like to build alien artifacts. I like building things that nobody expected to be built, and I’m not really excited by the idea of taking something that already exists and making it slightly better. That’s somewhat egotistical because I can say, ‘this would not have happened without me.’ It often starts with a very broad idea or project and then leads me to drill down to the essential point, to the golden nugget that might be at the core of an idea. That’s what I like.

More here.