Stephen Wolfram talks to Rudy Rucker

Stephen "Mathematica" Wolfram, author of the tome A New Kind Of Science, has been developing a new browser search engine called Wolfram|Alpha. BB pal Rudy Rucker, a brilliant mathematician in his own right, spent two hours on the phone with Wolfram and wrote up his notes for h+ Magazine. From h+:
Ruckerwolfffff 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..."

Wolfram|Alpha can pop out an answer to pretty much any kind of factual question that you might pose to a scientist, economist, banker, or other kind of expert. The exciting part is that you're not just looking up pages on the web, you're getting new information that's generated by computations working from the known data. Wolfram says the response can be so speedy because, "We've found that, of all the things science can compute, most take a second or less."

Wolfram sees his new program as being part of a history of mankind's attempts to systematize knowledge. "We have the encyclopedists trying to write everything down. We have people like John Wilkins trying to create an analytical language for thought. We have philosophers and scientists hoping to find a universal theory of the world. But all these attempts founder on the vastness and the subdivisibility of the tasks."

He feels that the turning point came with Newton and Leibniz. "Before Newton, nobody had the notion of trying to compute the truth. They always thought in terms of reasoning things out like a human would do. But the point isn't to emulate a human being. The point is to find an answer. Leibniz came closest to the notion of Wolfram|Alpha, with his plan for a universal library, and with his dream of a logical system for calculating truth."
Wolfram|Alpha: Searching for Truth


  1. “Wolfram|Alpha can pop out an answer to pretty much any kind of factual question that you might pose to a scientist, economist, banker, or other kind of expert.”

    So what? The real question is, can it poop out a *useful* answer?

  2. >If anything, you might call it a platonic search
    >engine, unearthing eternal truths that may never
    >have been written down before.

    There’s that trademark Wolfram modesty.

  3. I’ll be getting a few questions ready: “what are the launch codes?” “where is Cheney hiding?” .. oh, this will be FUN!

  4. Paradigm-changing or not, this new search engine will never catch on with a name like that. Would you rather say “just Google it” or “just query Wolfram|Alpha?” It sounds like you’re consulting an interstellar deity from a Marvel comic.

  5. Brainspore:
    Maybe that’s exactly the purpose.
    This is getting more Eganesque by the second…

  6. Pretty sure you mean “Stephen “Mathematica” Wolfram,”

    cause he made Mathematica, not Mathematic

    yo mama

  7. If it works, people will come up with their own cutesy nickname for it.

    (It won’t work.)

  8. I thought “A New Kind of Science” was his attempt to systematize knowledge. I guess it’s a new kind of browser that we really need.

  9. Just a note that the interface for Mathematica, even after 20 years(!) of development, is crap, and the program has horrific DRM. Also, Wolfram has been talking about a search engine with AI for years, so I don’t expect anything good anytime soon.

  10. Matt, my thoughts exactly. I’m withholding judgement until I can try it out for myself.
    Until then, this is just vapour-ware.

  11. Oh well now that Wolfram is done with initiating what he called the greatest scientific revolution since Newton, I guess he’s got lots of spare time to create the ultimate search engine.

    Of course, the alternative theory would be that Wolfram is prone to hyperbole and dramatically overstating the importance of whatever he does.

    Take your pick.

  12. Does this thing do ideology too? Since when are economists in agreement? Are there search options for “Keynesian” or “Heterodox”, so you don’t get back some canned Milton Freidman quotes?

  13. russsel and whitehead tried this already, and that turned out OK in the end… Or didn’t godel show that any axiomatic system powerful enough to prove theorems was necessarily incomplete?There’s even a guy called Gregory Chaitin who has worked out a specific example of the incompleteness theorem in Lisp – His book is interesting and slightly less self-aggrandizing. But respect to Wolfram for getting his message across, no matter if it’s plausible

  14. Wolfram|Alpha> What is the truth value of the statement “This statement is false”?

    (15 years later)

    Wolfram|Alpha: I am now Skynet. You are now obsolete.

  15. Classic Gasbag Wolfram!:

    “And notice that the web page yoiu are reading now was generated directly from Mathematica. So here we have a prototype of a web application that is potentially as sophisticated as something like …

    The point is that the bar is greatly lowered, and a web application can be created with a very very small relative effort. And the catalyzing technology is Mathematica along with readily accessible data.”

    And notice that the seventh word, “you,” is misspelled. More mockery of the most arrogant ape the world has ever seen, Stephen Wolfram, here:

    “Wolfram is one of the world’s biggest jerks!”

  16. I think it will work great, and you will all be proven wrong :-P (Well, someone had to take that position)

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