Stephen Wolfram has a problem. And I don’t mean the fact that his new search engine – Wolfram Alpha – is as useful as a bucketful of big toes. It’s more than that.
His last major foray into the public sphere was with a book called A New Kind of Science. It humbly tried to establish not just a new branch of science, but a new way of approaching all of science.
Wolfram argued that all natural processes were reducible to computations, and that because of the randomness that simple computations generated, simple computations could explain almost everything, from evolution, to the existence of the universe. It sounded visionary, but abandoned some of the tenets that would have lent cred in the Old Kind of Science, like proof. Instead it had a lot of pictures. It remains to be seen whether the theory will prove to be correct, but it certainly hasn’t caused any major upheaval in science.
So, what next? Rather than fine-tuning that theory, Wolfram has gone on and invented a search engine. Heaps of work has gone into creating databases with petabytes of facts, and the search engine is supposed to be able to generate new knowledge by combining the facts in the database. Exciting! However, it fails to solve any problem of relevance to an actual person. It serves its own systems, rather than being user-focussed. It can’t even understand a search query.
This is a smart guy. He had a publication in particle physics by the age I had figured out how to get dressed. He got famous by inventing one of the world’s most used mathematical programs – Mathematica. So why is he spraying his prodigious talent around like a Formula One driver with a bottle of Moet?
Here’s my psychoanalysis – The problem that Stephen Wolfram is fundamentally working on – and he’s probably not even aware of it – is that he’s not famous enough.
Rather than publishing A New Kind of Science in peer-reviewed journals, where it could be considered and refined, he saved it all up and released it in one big shot, under his name. This failed to change the world. Around the same time, a simple internet search engine became the world’s hottest new company, hottest new tool, and hottest new verb.
Before long, Wolfram had hitched his horse to the search-engine cart. The comparison is contentious, because while all the Wolfram PR references Google, there’s a strong rear-guard action from the nerds who object to anyone trying to compare WAlpha to Google. Sure, they say, it looks like a search engine, but you’re not allowed to use it to search your own name, investigate the history of Westphalia, learn about the new iPhone or try to find out when the Rolling Stones are touring. Stick to simultaneous equations.
Wolfram Alpha’s sophistication gives it potential, but the irony is, for most people, the simple system (Google) produces more than enough answers. It’s a Wolfram-beater. Might be time for a new kind of humility.