Can This New Programming Language Change the World?

Decoding the tech world.
March 6 2014 4:37 PM

Language Barriers

Stephen Wolfram claims he can make the world computable. Is he on to something?

Stephen Wolfram
Stephen Wolfram released the first version of Mathematica in 1988, when he was 28.

Photo courtesy Joi Ito/Flickr

The British scientist and polymath Stephen Wolfram has always had big ambitions. He wrote four book-length works on physics by age 14. He earned a Ph.D. in particle physics from Cal Tech by age 20. By 22, he won a MacArthur “genius grant.” Now, he is proclaiming his new project, the Wolfram Language, to be the biggest computer language of all time. It has been in the works for more than 20 years, and, while in development, formed the underlying basis of Wolfram’s popular Mathematica software. In the words of Wolfram, now 54, his new language “knows about the world” and makes the world computable.

David Auerbach David Auerbach

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is http://davidauerba.ch.

These are bold claims, and, if they were true, the Wolfram Language would change the world, solving longstanding problems of artificial intelligence that vex even Google. Indeed, Wolfram says he is working at a level far beyond Google. But are his claims true?

A bit of history: Mathematica is a sort of integrated toolbox for mathematical analysis and visualization. It is quite flexible at managing complex mathematics and mathematical models. Across the science and engineering disciplines, Mathematica has proved helpful in complex symbolic mathematical research, which can be applied to everything from thermodynamic modeling to seismic activity to Facebook friend graphs.

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Most math and science students and professors use Mathematica or a similar program like MATLAB or Sage. It’s not as ubiquitous in the corporate world, but has found its uses there in intensely mathematical domains such as actuarial work and in engineering firms that do physical and chemical modeling.

Mathematica is all Wolfram’s baby. After spending some years in academia and getting fed up (“You look at all these scientists and you see people who did one good thing, and then they just keep on doing it for the rest of their lives,” he once said), he started his own company, Wolfram Research—it released the first version of Mathematica in 1988, when Wolfram was 28. “I much prefer to deal with smart business people who run venture capital firms than with the bozos the government employs to administer funds,” as he put it. Mathematica’s success made Wolfram wealthy and effectively gave him free rein to pursue his research interests outside the academic world.

Wolfram made a popular splash when he self-published the gargantuan A New Kind of Science in 2002. The book revolved around the intriguing field of “cellular automata”: how simple transformational and evolutionary rules applied to adjacent binary “cells” could produce very complicated processes over time. Wolfram intimated that such complexity constituted the underpinnings of life, the universe, and everything. The worth of the book was much disputed, coming in for harsh criticism from physicist Steven Weinberg, complexity researcher Cosma Shalizi (in a review titled “A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity”), and any number of droll Amazon reviewers.

Just on the basis of Wolfram’s outsize reputation, the Wolfram Language will gain a lot of attention. And to be clear, it’s more than just a language. The actual underlying language itself is packaged with an extensive “knowledge base,” one that can be manipulated and analyzed in various symbolic ways. The knowledge base is too large to be contained by most computers, so the language requires a connection to Wolfram’s cloud. The language does not cleanly differentiate between operations that are purely nonrepresentational (like addition or multiplication) and those that involve real-world data (like taking a webcam picture or looking at the weather around the world). Because all these functions are baked into the language, one might be inclined to believe that the Wolfram Language is somehow more fundamentally aware of the world than a traditional computer language like Java or Python.

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