Ada Lovelace was born 200 years ago today. To some she is a great hero in the history of computing; to others an overestimated minor figure. I’ve been curious for a long time what the real story is. And in preparation for her bicentennial, I decided to try to solve what for me has always been the “mystery of Ada”.
It was much harder than I expected. Historians disagree. The personalities in the story are hard to read. The technology is difficult to understand. The whole story is entwined with the customs of 19th-century British high society. And there’s a surprising amount of misinformation and misinterpretation out there.
But after quite a bit of research—including going to see many original documents—I feel like I’ve finally gotten to know Ada Lovelace, and gotten a grasp on her story. In some ways it’s an ennobling and inspiring story; in some ways it’s frustrating and tragic.
It’s a complex story, and to understand it, we’ll have to start by going over quite a lot of facts and narrative.
But a little while ago, I realized there was another book I had to write: a book that would introduce people with no knowledge of programming to the Wolfram Language and the kind of computational thinking it allows.
A hundred years ago today Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity—a brilliant, elegant theory that has survived a century, and provides the only successful way we have of describing spacetime.
There are plenty of theoretical indications, though, that General Relativity isn’t the end of the story of spacetime. And in fact, much as I like General Relativity as an abstract theory, I’ve come to suspect it may actually have led us on a century-long detour in understanding the true nature of space and time.
I’ve been thinking about the physics of space and time for a little more than 40 years now. At the beginning, as a young theoretical physicist, I mostly just assumed Einstein’s whole mathematical setup of Special and General Relativity—and got on with my work in quantum field theory, cosmology, etc. on that basis.
But about 35 years ago, partly inspired by my experiences in creating technology, I began to think more deeply about fundamental issues in theoretical science—and started on my long journey to go beyond traditional mathematical equations and instead use computation and programs as basic models in science. Quite soon I made the basic discovery that even very simple programs can show immensely complex behavior—and over the years I discovered that all sorts of systems could finally be understood in terms of these kinds of programs.
Encouraged by this success, I then began to wonder if perhaps the things I’d found might be relevant to that ultimate of scientific questions: the fundamental theory of physics. 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
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Boole. In our modern digital world, we’re always hearing about “Boolean variables”—1 or 0, true or false. And one might think, “What a trivial idea! Why did someone even explicitly need to invent it?” But as is so often the case, there’s a deeper story—for Boolean variables were really just a side effect of an important intellectual advance that George Boole made.
When George Boole came onto the scene, the disciplines of logic and mathematics had developed quite separately for more than 2000 years. And George Boole’s great achievement was to show how to bring them together, through the concept of what’s now called Boolean algebra. And in doing so he effectively created the field of mathematical logic, and set the stage for the long series of developments that led for example to universal computation.
When George Boole invented Boolean algebra, his basic goal was to find a set of mathematical axioms that could reproduce the classical results of logic. His starting point was ordinary algebra, with variables like x and y, and operations like addition and multiplication.
At first, ordinary algebra seems a lot like logic. After all, p and q is the same as q and p, just as p×q = q×p. But if one looks in more detail, there are differences. Like p×p = p2, but p and p is just p. Somewhat confusingly, Boole used the notation of standard algebra, but added special rules to create an axiom system that he then showed could reproduce all the usual results of logic.
Boole was rather informal in the way he described his axiom system. But within a few decades, it had been more precisely formalized, and over the course of the century that followed, a few progressively simpler forms of it were found. And then, as it happens, 16 years ago I ended up finishing this 150-year process, by finding—largely as a side effect of other science I was doing—the provably very simplest possible axiom system for logic, that actually happens to consist of just a single axiom.
“What is this a picture of?” Humans can usually answer such questions instantly, but in the past it’s always seemed out of reach for computers to do this. For nearly 40 years I’ve been sure computers would eventually get there—but I’ve wondered when.
I’ve built systems that give computers all sorts of intelligence, much of it far beyond the human level. And for a long time we’ve been integrating all that intelligence into the Wolfram Language.
Now I’m excited to be able to say that we’ve reached a milestone: there’s finally a function called ImageIdentify built into the Wolfram Language that lets you ask, “What is this a picture of?”—and get an answer.
My goal with the Wolfram Language is to take programming to a new level. And over the past year we’ve been rolling out ways to use and deploy the language in many places—desktop, cloud, mobile, embedded, etc. So what about wearables? And in particular, what about the Apple Watch? A few days ago I decided to explore what could be done. So I cleared my schedule for the day, and started writing code.
My idea was to write code with our standard Wolfram Programming Cloud, but instead of producing a web app or web API, to produce an app for the Apple Watch. And conveniently enough, a preliminary version of our Wolfram Cloud app just became available in the App Store—letting me deploy from the Wolfram Cloud to both mobile devices and the watch.
The Wolfram Cloud is coming out of beta soon (yay!), and right now I’m spending much of my time working to make it as good as possible (and, by the way, it’s getting to be really great!). Mostly I concentrate on defining high-level function and strategy. But I like to understand things at every level, and as a CEO, one’s ultimately responsible for everything. And at the beginning of March I found myself diving deep into something I never expected…
Here’s the story. As a serious production system that lots of people will use to do things like run businesses, the Wolfram Cloud should be as fast as possible. Our metrics were saying that typical speeds were good, but subjectively when I used it something felt wrong. Sometimes it was plenty fast, but sometimes it seemed way too slow.
We’ve got excellent software engineers, but months were going by, and things didn’t seem to be changing. Meanwhile, we’d just released the Wolfram Data Drop. So I thought, why don’t I just run some tests myself, maybe collecting data in our nice new Wolfram Data Drop?
A great thing about the Wolfram Language is how friendly it is for busy people: even if you only have time to dash off a few lines of code, you can get real things done. And in this case, I only had to run three lines of code to find a problem.