Stephen Wolfram Says He Has An Algorithm For Everything — Literally

Stephen Wolfram believes that we may have already discovered the fundamental Unified Theory of Physics, and that he may able to write it down via a language that his company, Wolfram Alpha, has developed.

That's just the beginning for the man some believe to be the smartest person on the planet. Wolfram also plans to extend the power of computations to messier subjects, revolutionizing everything from law to medicine.

Best In Show At SWSW?

At his talk Monday at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas (Stephen Wolfram: The Computational Future, #wolffuture), Wolfram revealed that he

  • Is working on an augmented reality version of his Wolfram Alpha "computational engine."
  • Has plans to place the pioneering mathematics program Mathematica in the cloud (and make it accessible via iPhones).

Wolfram plans to more closely tie Mathematica to other data sources to simulate the interaction of complex machinery. The idea is to be able to answer questions like: "Would an SU-48 Flanker fighter jet be able to fly within the atmosphere of Mars?"

He will do all this, he told attendees, by opening up the fundamental language that his company created — one he calls, with characteristic modesty, the Wolfram Language — to the world at large. Eventually, he added, we'll probably use the Wolfram Language to unify all of physics, too.

Smartest Person On The Planet?

Wolfram won the award for Speaker of the Event at the 2012 SXSW conference, and he seems ready to contend for the crown again. There's no disputing his smarts — this is, after all, a guy who dropped out of Oxford at age 17 only to earn a doctorate in particle physics from Caltech three years later. But at this stage in his career, Wolfram seems obsessed with accumulating, picking apart and then weaving together disparate sources of data, such as basic rules that can be used to achieve complex results.

Wolfram's science of Computational Equivalence holds that we may have already discovered the interrelationships that will help us solve the universe's fundamental problems. If we continually automate and improve the process, we can build a framework that will not only allow computers to process the necessary data, but determine the best way to build and refine that process as well.

"We will define a purpose or a goal and the machines will determine how best to achieve that goal," Wolfram said. "But will it be wonderful or boring or terrible?"

Wolfram never mentioned the "singularity," the term popularized by Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, which suggests that generations of machines will constantly improve themselves until their intelligence far outstrips our own. Wolfram took a different tack, suggesting that all intelligence — our own, alien and machine — was entirely based on computation. Computation, he said, was "the main event." Fortunately, he said, there's a place for humanity in such a world, as the purpose that drives machines to complete their tasks.

(See also: Ray Kurzweil, Father Of The Singularity, Is Going To Work At Google)

At this point, Wolfram's interface between man and machine is the Wolfram Alpha computational engine, which curates, parses and assimilates as many sources of data as it can. It basically allows users to ask for comparisons between 2-bedroom apartments in Austin and San Francisco, how much larger than a teaspoon a plain M&M candy is, or something simple, like the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It can even analyze your Facebook friends.

In part, Wolfram Alpha is built on top of Mathematica, the groundbreaking program that allowed users to input equations and receive meaningful results. (It also provides the factual answers to questions fielded by Apple's virtual assistant Siri, sometimes with less-than-impressive results.)

Wolfram isn't shy in describing his creation, either. In using Mathematica, he told the audience, "you take the knowledge of the world and build up from there."

The Future Of Mathematica

This June, Mathematica will celebrate its 25th anniversary. As part of that event, Wolfram will unveil two things: first, it will break out the underlying language that runs the desktop version of Mathematica — the aforementioned Wolfram Language — and expose it to the world. Second, it will push Mathematica into the cloud. Mathematica is essentially already accessible via the cloud through Wolfram Alpha, but this is apparently paving the way you to tap into it via iOS, Android and a host of other platforms.)

In a demonstration, Wolfram showed how the Wolfram language could not only be hidden behind natural language ("graph a sine wave") but also brought forward and exposed, so that users could construct their own sliders and create variables. In his example, the language created a slider bar that could compress and expand the period of the wave itself.

Wolfram Alpha will also be more closely tied to Mathematica System Modeller, a large-scale modelling and simulation effort that uses Mathematica as its foundation. "I think that Mathematica has been somewhat undersold," Wolfram said. "People think that's a great tool for doing math — and it is, not surprising given the name — but it's actually much more than that."

One area where Wolfram's expertise has seemingly fallen down is in the nature of image recognition: Wolfram can do edge detection on a given image, analyze it chromatically and pick apart its disparate elements, but it can't tell you what it is. That sounds like it may be about to change. "The future will be increasingly preemptive, so that when you see something, we'll tell you the ways we think you should know about it," Wolfram said. But he did not give a time frame on when Wolfram will add that capability.

Algorithms For Everything!

Wolfram's vision extends far beyond math, to include messier human interactions — the legal system, for example. Eventually, Wolfram predicted, legal contracts will become computations, essentially algorithms accounting for the interrelationships between numbers and entities. Mortgages, tax codes and other contracts are "just ways of representing the real world in all of its messiness," Wolfram explained.

Even medicine can eventually be abstracted into computations. Wolfram said that he believed that if software could be analyzed for weaknesses and potential diseases, germs and other "bugs" that live in our body could be algorithmically isolated and eliminated.

Thats getting a bit ahead of Wolfram Alpha's core business plan, however. The plan is to spin off these interesting yet peripheral applications: Computerbasedmath.org is a planned spinoff to focus on improving mathematics education in the United States; a second spinoff will focus on computer-based medical diagnoses, using automated sensors as a supplement to a doctor's own expertise. A third entity would provide methods and procedures to secure outside funding for the Wolfram spinoffs. "We're just leaving too may good ideas on the table," Wolfram explained.

Kickstarting The Unified Theory Of Physics?

And then there's the Unified Theory of Physics, the Holy Grail of the physical sciences. Wolfram said he believes we've already found it. Deep inside the reams of data that scientists have collected about the universe, Wolfram said, should be some basic interaction between the various particles and forces that make up our universe. We have only to identify it. 

It's a scary proposition for physicists, though, and there many not be much real-world value to knowing. So Wolfram is looking for data indicating how many people really want to know the answer to the fundamental question of the universe — and who might be willing to help pay to find out. "I've been thinking of launching a Kickstarter," Wolfram said.