Monday, April 06, 2009


Kicking off our conversation, Stephen remarks that, “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t really a search engine, because we compute the answers, and we discover new truths. If anything, you might call it a platonic search engine, unearthing eternal truths that may never have been written down before.”

Despite his disclaimer, Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine, in that there’s a one-line box where you type in a question. The output appears a second or two later, as a page of text and graphics below the box. What's happening behind the scenes? Rather than looking up the answer to your question, Wolfram|Alpha figures out what your question means, looks up the necessary data to answer your question, computes an answer, designs a page to present the answer in a pleasing way, and sends the page back to your computer.




He regards Wolfram|Alpha as a natural outgrowth from his own work on Mathematica and on the NKS notions of complex computation. “Most of us only have one idea,” he remarks. “My idea is to make the world computable. Mathematica was about finding the simplest primitive computations, and designing a system where humans could hook these computations together to create patterns of scientific interest. NKS was about the notion that that we can start with primitive computations and not bring in humans at all. If you do a brute search over the space of all possible computations, you can find ones that are rich enough to produce the natural-looking kinds of patterns that you want. And Wolfram|Alpha is about how we might build the edifice of human knowledge from simple primitive computational rules.”

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