Gottfried Leibniz—who died 300 years ago this November—worked on many things. But a theme that recurred throughout his life was the goal of turning human law into an exercise in computation. Of course, as we know, he didn’t succeed. But three centuries later, I think we’re finally ready to give it a serious try again. And I think it’s a really important thing to do—not just because it’ll enable all sorts of new societal opportunities and structures, but because I think it’s likely to be critical to the future of our civilization in its interaction with artificial intelligence.
Human law, almost by definition, dates from the very beginning of civilization—and undoubtedly it’s the first system of rules that humans ever systematically defined. Presumably it was a model for the axiomatic structure of mathematics as defined by the likes of Euclid. And when science came along, “natural laws” (as their name suggests) were at first viewed as conceptually similar to human laws, except that they were supposed to define constraints for the universe (or God) rather than for humans.
Over the past few centuries we’ve had amazing success formalizing mathematics and exact science. And out of this there’s a more general idea that’s emerged: the idea of computation. In computation, we’re dealing with arbitrary systems of rules—not necessarily ones that correspond to mathematical concepts we know, or features of the world we’ve identified. So now the question is: can we use the ideas of computation, in very much the way Leibniz imagined, to formalize human law? Continue reading
Not many years ago, the idea of having a computer broadly answer questions asked in plain English seemed like science fiction. But when we released Wolfram|Alpha in 2009 one of the big surprises (not least to me!) was that we’d managed to make this actually work. And by now people routinely ask personal assistant systems—many powered by Wolfram|Alpha—zillions of questions in ordinary language every day.
It all works fairly well for quick questions, or short commands (though we’re always trying to make it better!). But what about more sophisticated things? What’s the best way to communicate more seriously with AIs? Continue reading
Every four years for more than a century there’s been an International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) held somewhere in the world. In 1900 it was where David Hilbert announced his famous collection of math problems—and it’s remained the top single periodic gathering for the world’s research mathematicians.
This year the ICM is in Seoul, and I’m going to it today. I went to the ICM once before—in Kyoto in 1990. Mathematica was only two years old then, and mathematicians were just getting used to it. Plenty already used it extensively—but at the ICM there were also quite a few who said, “I do pure mathematics. How can Mathematica possibly help me?”
Two weeks ago I spoke at SXSW Interactive in Austin, TX. Here’s a slightly edited transcript (it’s the “speaker’s cut”, including some demos I had to abandon during the talk):
Well, I’ve got a lot planned for this hour.
Basically, I want to tell you a story that’s been unfolding for me for about the last 40 years, and that’s just coming to fruition in a really exciting way. And by just coming to fruition, I mean pretty much today. Because I’m planning to show you today a whole lot of technology that’s the result of that 40-year story—that I’ve never shown before, and that I think is going to be pretty important.
I always like to do live demos. But today I’m going to be pretty extreme. Showing you a lot of stuff that’s very very fresh. And I hope at least a decent fraction of it is going to work.
OK, here’s the big theme: taking computation seriously. Really understanding the idea of computation. And then building technology that lets one inject it everywhere—and then seeing what that means. Continue reading
Last week I gave a talk at SXSW 2013 in Austin about some of the things I’m thinking about these days—including quite a few that I’ve never talked publicly about before. Here’s a video, and a slightly edited transcript:
Well, this is a pretty exciting time for me. Because it turns out that a whole bunch of things that I’ve been working on for more than 30 years are all finally converging, in a very nice way. And what I’d like to do here today is tell you a bit about that, and about some things I’ve figured out recently—and about what it all means for our future.
This is going to be a bit of a wild talk in some ways. It’s going to go from pretty intellectual stuff about basic science and so on, to some really practical technology developments, with a few sneak peeks at things I’ve never shown before.
Let’s start from some science. And you know, a lot of what I’ll say today connects back to what I thought at first was a small discovery that I made about 30 years ago. Let me tell you the story.
I started out at a pretty young age as a physicist. Diligently doing physics pretty much the way it had been done for 300 years. Starting from this-or-that equation, and then doing the math to figure out predictions from it. That worked pretty well in some cases. But there were too many cases where it just didn’t work. So I got to wondering whether there might be some alternative; a different approach. Continue reading
This is an edited version of a short talk I gave last weekend at The Nantucket Project—a fascinatingly eclectic event held on an island that I happen to have been visiting every summer for the past dozen years.
Lots of things have happened in the world in the past 100 years. But I think in the long view of history one thing will end up standing out among all others: this has been the century when the idea of computation emerged.
We’ve seen all sorts of things “get computerized” over the last few decades—and by now a large fraction of people in the world have at least some form of computational device. But I think we’re still only at the very beginning of absorbing the implications of the idea of computation. And what I want to do here today is to talk about some things that are happening, and that I think are going to happen, as a result of the idea of computation.
I’ve been working on this stuff since I was teenager—which is now about a third of a century. And I think I’ve been steadily understanding more and more.
Our computational knowledge engine, Wolfram|Alpha, which was launched on the web about three years ago now, is one of the latest fruits of this understanding. Continue reading
Today ten years have passed since A New Kind of Science (“the NKS book”) was published. But in many ways the development that started with the book is still only just beginning. And over the next several decades I think its effects will inexorably become ever more obvious and important.
Indeed, even at an everyday level I expect that in time there will be all sorts of visible reminders of NKS all around us. Today we are continually exposed to technology and engineering that is directly descended from the development of the mathematical approach to science that began in earnest three centuries ago. Sometime hence I believe a large portion of our technology will instead come from NKS ideas. It will not be created incrementally from components whose behavior we can analyze with traditional mathematics and related methods. Rather it will in effect be “mined” by searching the abstract computational universe of possible simple programs.
And even at a visual level this will have obvious consequences. For today’s technological systems tend to be full of simple geometrical shapes (like beams and boxes) and simple patterns of behavior that we can readily understand and analyze. But when our technology comes from NKS and from mining the computational universe there will not be such obvious simplicity. Instead, even though the underlying rules will often be quite simple, the overall behavior that we see will often be in a sense irreducibly complex.
So as one small indication of what is to come—and as part of celebrating the first decade of A New Kind of Science—starting today, when Wolfram|Alpha is computing, it will no longer display a simple rotating geometric shape, but will instead run a simple program (currently, a 2D cellular automaton) from the computational universe found by searching for a system with the right kind of visually engaging behavior.
Last weekend I decided to have a short break from all the exciting technological things we’re doing… and to give a talk at the Singularity Summit in New York City about the implications of A New Kind of Science for the future, technological and otherwise. Here’s the transcript:
Well, what I wanted to do here was to have some fun—and talk about the future.
That’s something that’s kind of recreational for me. Because what I normally do is work in the trenches just trying to actually build the future… kind of one brick at a time—or at least one big project at a time.
I’ve been doing this now for a bit more than 30 years, and I guess I’ve built a fairly tall tower. From which it’s possible to do and see some pretty interesting things. Continue reading
In the last several weeks, I’ve given talks about innovation, mobile technology, mathematics and philosophy. Last week I gave a talk at the Bio–IT World conference in Boston.
At the beginning I covered many of my favorite topics: Wolfram|Alpha, Mathematica, A New Kind of Science. But then I turned more specifically to biomedicine, and talked about quite a few topics that I’ve never discussed in public before.
Here’s an edited transcript.
OK. Well. I’m going to talk about some pretty ambitious things here today.
Both in technology and in science.
I’m going to talk about what we can know, and what we can compute, in biomedicine.
And about how we can make use of that.
I’m going to talk both about some practical technology and some basic science that I’ve been involved in building, that tries to address those things.
Many of you I hope will have seen and used Wolfram|Alpha, which has been off entertaining us in the background there.
Let me start with that.
You know–when computers, and I, were a lot younger, it used to be a common assumption that one day one would just be able to walk up to a computer and ask it anything.
And that if what one asked could somehow be answered on the basis of any knowledge that had been accumulated in our civilization, then the computer would be able to figure it out.
Well, 30 years ago I started wondering what it would take to actually do this.
And at first I have to say I thought the only possibility was to build a whole artificial intelligence—a whole brain-like thing that somehow thinks like a human.
And that seemed really hard.
But gradually I realized that actually, that might not be the right direction at all.
And that we might not want to build sort of the analog of a bird—but rather the analog of an airplane.
And that computation—and a bunch of ideas around it—might be the key.
Well, by that point I’d assembled a pretty big stack of technology and science, and organizational capability.
And a little more than five years ago I decided it was time to try a serious assault on the problem—of making the world’s knowledge computable.
Well, the result was Wolfram|Alpha. Which is a very long-term project.
But already gets used every day by millions of people, who manage effectively just to walk up to it and have it answer all kinds of things. Continue reading