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+:
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."