Stephen Wolfram doesn’t blog much, but when he does he makes it count. On November 13, 2013, Wolfram sat down at his Mac and promised that the new computer language he created would be his “most important technology project yet.”
All bloggers are in the business of self-promotion. But those were particularly strong words coming from a man who has already invented many of the underpinnings of today’s revolution in technical computing. Indeed, in his lengthy blog post announcing the “Wolfram Language,” Wolfram produced what Paul Kedrosky of the Kauffman Foundation called “one of the most entertainingly hubristic product semi-announcements ever.” But Wolfram doesn’t do small. As an inventor and businessman, he has a history of making big bets—and covering them. His announcement may have been a boast, but it was not an empty one.
The 55-year-old Wolfram is best known for his technical achievements. He’s the founder, president, and CEO of the privately held Wolfram Research. The company publishes his computational software program Mathematica, which has become the standard for technical computing and is broadly deployed across scientific, engineering, mathematical, and computing fields. Mathematica, the program that made Stephen Wolfram’s fortune, is the VisiCalc of math programs. It changed the way scientists and mathematicians use math on their computers in many of the same ways that spreadsheets helped expand how people could manage businesses—making mathematical work on PCs both more powerful and easier. But, significantly, unlike VisiCalc, Mathematica has not been rendered redundant by its descendants. More than 25 years after its introduction, it continues to be a standard, particularly in academia. It remains a rich, open-ended environment in which a vibrant ecosystem of add-ons and consultants flourishes.
Wolfram Research also publishes Wolfram|Alpha, a computational knowledge engine that directly addresses factual inquiries by computing the answer from a range of external resources, rather than providing a list of links that might contain the answer, as you would expect from a standard search engine. Wolfram|Alpha serves as the “factual” back end to Apple’s Siri (as well as part of Microsoft’s Bing and the independent search engine DuckDuckGo). It powers a personal analytics engine for Facebook and is embedded in The Elements, one of the first apps that showed what an iPad could do. It includes manifold sources, such as the CIA’s World Factbook and the CrunchBase database of technology companies, and is so large that it runs across more than 10,000 CPUs. Some of the data sets are automatically generated, while others are curated and corrected by humans. The end result, written in more than 15 million lines of Mathematica code, helps people find unexpected, and sometimes powerful, connections across multiple databases.
Wolfram Research, which today has about 400 employees, has thrived for 26 years (Mathematica and its extensions remain the core business of the company), even when Wolfram himself went on a nearly decade-long semi-sabbatical to research and write a 1,192-page book not-so-humbly titled A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media, 2002). (He characterized himself as an engaged but emphatically part-time CEO during that time.) The book, which has spawned many high-profile and energetic advocates—and no small number of critics—argues that the simplest of programs underlie our most complex universes. When Wolfram was looking for luminaries to write blurbs for A New Kind of Science, his longtime friend Steve Jobs advised him against that approach, in typical Jobsian terms. “Isaac Newton didn’t have back-cover quotes,” Jobs told Wolfram. “Why do you want them?”
The arguments in A New Kind of Science are profoundly iconoclastic and aim to change the world at an Isaac Newton level. The basic premise is that simple rules that work like basic computer programs can lead very quickly to surprising complexity. If our traditional understanding of science comes primarily from engineering and mathematics, Wolfram’s argument revolves around the idea that computing can explain more about the complexity of our world than those two disciplines alone. Indeed, he seems to believe that thinking of everything as a computer program is the path to understanding. He questions some basics of modern science, arguing, for example, that natural selection is not the primary cause of complexity in biology, and that the second law of thermodynamics might have an exception. From Wolfram’s vantage point, computing isn’t just a way to learn more about engineering and mathematics; it’s a fundamental and new way of looking at how science works—and how our world works. The initial work Wolfram did on the topic has certainly entered into the scientific mainstream—his research in the 1980s in cellular automata, a once-obscure branch of physics, has been cited in more than 10,000 academic papers—but it’s as yet unclear whether those mostly accepted notions can be extrapolated to explain what Douglas Adams once called “life, the universe, and everything.” Everything, A New Kind of Science argues, from the cellular level to the whole universe, runs like a computer program, deriving increasing complexity from the simplest of rules. By looking at the universe that way, he says, we can comprehend it as it really is.