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Published: May 5, 2014
 / Summer 2014 / Issue 75

 
 

Stephen Wolfram’s World-Changing Plans

The remote nature of work for many in Wolfram Research suits Barthelet fine. “I feel like I have an extra day of the week because I’m not commuting,” he says. “I don’t know why [working from home is] not more widely used. It offers dramatically higher productivity.”

Optimizing for Eureka

Wolfram’s audacity is both one of his greatest selling points and one of the most commented-upon aspects of his public image. In an 8,000-word review of A New Kind of Science, Ray Kurzweil, no stranger to hubristic enterprises himself (he’s working on ways to live forever), notes, “I find Wolfram’s enthusiasm for his own ideas refreshing,” even if he concludes that “Wolfram’s sweeping and ambitious treatise paints a compelling but ultimately overstated and incomplete picture.” For his part, Wolfram has been refining his theory and encouraging research into its ramifications. Indeed, Wolfram considers the controversy over his theory a leading indicator of eventual success. He says, “The best predictor of a paradigm shift’s success [over the] long term is how upset it makes people.”

Although projects like A New Kind of Science and creating a new kind of computer language may seem like swing-for-the-fences projects, Wolfram says he doesn’t view them that way. “I don’t see myself as particularly ambitious. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do some things that have been reasonably successful. Once you’ve done that, you realize, ‘This is fun, I might as well do more of this.’ For me, with my particular psychology, I’m thinking, ‘I’m doing something that nobody else is going to do.’”

Wolfram may seem disingenuous, declining to characterize himself as ambitious, trying to seem cordially modest to an interviewer. Yes, he’s enormously confident of what he’s accomplished and he’s delighted by the work he gets to do, but he sees himself as only “reasonably successful.” In his mind, he’s just getting started. He’s still hungry. And, perhaps more than anything else, Wolfram wants to be right: about his business, about what his products can do, about the new kind of science he believes he has discovered. Chris Anderson, who curates the TED conference and has hosted Wolfram as a speaker, gets close to the core of how Wolfram’s advocates see him when he says, “Just because Wolfram has an ego doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”

Wolfram says that keeping Wolfram Research as a privately held firm is the best decision he ever made as CEO. At a technology conference in Boston in 2010, Wolfram graded his company this way: “I’d give us an A+ in technology and R&D, but maybe a B or C in business.” When reminded of this, Wolfram says, “It’s a question of what one is trying to optimize. For me, I would say that probably since that time we have improved the business side of the company. Because we’re not public, we don’t make as much money as we might, but I’m the one who loses the most [because of that], and it’s my decision. I do feel an obligation to my employees to give them an environment where enough money is being made that they can do well. But you can optimize things to maximize the amount of money that the company makes, and we definitely have not done that.”

What Wolfram has done, though, is build a company focused on identifying big problems and going at them without restraint. “It’s been a very positive thing here, being able to motivate people to work on what seemed like impossible projects. In many situations, you get in some meeting and somebody will say, ‘There’s 30 years’ worth of literature about this and it’s still an unsolved problem.’ At that point, the group might say, ‘Forget it, that’s just hopeless.’ At least we’ve managed to develop a culture where people say, ‘Great, let’s try and solve this.’ The thing that’s really interesting is how often one can.”

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. John Koetsier, “Sentient Code: An Inside Look at Stephen Wolfram’s Utterly New, Insanely Ambitious Computational Paradigm,” VentureBeat, Nov. 29, 2013: What’s behind the “amazing” Wolfram Language.
  2. Carly Page, “Wolfram Alpha Will Soon Be Able to Read Your Mind,” The Inquirer, Mar. 11, 2013: A report on Wolfram’s 2013 South by Southwest presentation in which he predicts that the company’s analytics engine will soon work preemptively, meaning it will be able to predict what its users are looking for.
  3. Stephen Wolfram, “Computing a Theory of Everything” (video), TED.com, Apr. 2010: Wolfram discusses “the single biggest idea that’s emerged in the past century”: computation.
  4. Stephen Wolfram, “The Personal Analytics of My Life,” Wired, Mar. 8, 2012: “One day I’m sure everyone will routinely collect all sorts of data about themselves,” Wolfram writes. “But because I’ve been interested in data for a very long time, I started doing this long ago.”
  5. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at: strategy-business.com/innovation.
 
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