Wolfram Alpha

May 11, 2009
  • General
  • Technology

This has been getting a lot of hype recently. It remains unclear whether Stephen Wolfram's ambitious new project will live up to expectations and change the way we use the Internet or whether it will be yet another overblown flop that we check out once before returning to Google.

Wolfram is a very ambitious man. He is a renaissance man, and his work spans the the fields of mathematics, particle physics, cosmology, and most notably computer science, symbolic algebra, and cellular autonomy. Wolfram is best known for his development of a fantastic computer program known as Mathematica. In a nutshell, Mathematica is the world's greatest calculator. Really, it's a computer language used to preform symbolic manipulation (in other worlds, it does math on abstract objects and functions whose exact definitions may or may not be defined).

The idea that ties all of Wolfram's projects together is chaos theory. Wolfram is extremely fascinated by the concept of very complicated systems emerging from simple rules. [Really, all of nature is a complex system that emerges from a relatively small amount of rules. Of course, we don't yet know what these rules are. We know what they look like in certain energy regimes, but we don't know how many there are (there could be only one, or there could be infinitely many). It is the goal of physics to find these rules.]

Consider an anthill. Any particular ant is extremely stupid. They have a very primitive brain whose main job is to interpret sensory information, mostly in the form of smells, and convert this into one of several simple actions. If an ant smells a certain scent, it follows it. If the ant smells an egg with a certain pheromone, it moves the egg. If an ant smells another ant, it attacks that ant. One could write out a list of a dozen or so rules and one would fully define the ant, more or less. However, as a whole, the anthill is a very complex beast. These few, simple rules, when scaled over hundreds of ants, become a giant living brain capable of surviving, finding food, growing, digging, moving, and attacking. The anthill really is one giant brain and each ant acts as a neuron.

Birds fly in beautiful patterns in the sky. They flock as huge groups and always know where to fly as to not run into other birds. But really, all any individual bird knows is the following: if you see a bird of your type flying, fly behind it but slightly to the side. Flocks are the emergent behavior of this simple rule.

Okay, so back to Wolfram. From rules come complexity, from order comes randomness. This is exemplified by something invented by Stephen known as Rule 30.

Rule 30

Rule 30 is a simple rule for moving through a series of bits and changing each bit one by one based on the value of the bit and its nearest neighbors. In other words, one starts with a long string of 0's and 1's. One then goes to each 0 or 1 and changes it based on the following rules:

111 -> 0
110 -> 0
101 -> 0
100 -> 1
011 -> 1
010 -> 1
001 -> 1
000 -> 0

There are 8 rules and they represent all possible combinations of three binary numbers.
In other words, if we come across a 1 1 1 x, we change the middle number to 0 so it becomes 1 0 1 x and then we move on to the next bit, which would be 0 1 x and apply the rule again. We do this for as long as we like, and from these simple rules chaotic patterns emerge. Just as ants, birds, the very neurons in our brain, quarks, gluons, electrons, photons, and all other elementary particles run on some set of rules and yet create complexity.

Dr. Ian Malcom and Stephen Wolfram would certainly be good friends.

Wolfram Apha is designed as the next step in human-computer interaction (it takes us a very large step toward Skynet.). It is the computer system envisioned by countless sci-fi authors decades ago. You ask it a question and it gives you an answer; simple as that. (Good examples of stories based on this idea are The Last Question by Issac Asimov and EPICAC by Kurt Vonnegut).

The Last Question


It's supposed to come online this week, and I look forward to playing with it. And I'd say that there's only a 10% chance that when turned on, it will begin the war with the machines. And even if it does, we could always ask it to play tic-tac-toe against itself. That's every sentient computer's kryptonite.