On November 25th, the Digital October Center hosted a live link-up with Stephen Wolfram, the British scientist, programmer, and entrepreneur who founded Wolfram Alpha, a project that is already being hailed as an innovation on par with Google, and that is supported by Siri, a feature of all of the new generations of iPhones and iPads. Launched in spring of 2009, many considered the project to be yet another attempt to expand artificial intelligence.
This event took place as part of the “Forecast for Tomorrow” lecture series, which was created by the Knowledge Stream project in collaboration with IBS.
Although Stephen himself is loath to label his pet project a search engine, you see the usual search bar in your browser, set some parameters, and that’s when the magic begins: instead of a list of links, you get an actual answer to your question. Using its own knowledge databases, as well as algorithms that translate ordinary questions into language a machine can understand, Alpha calculates a ready solution. For the moment, it’s only available in English.
This question-answering system can solve equations, analyze stock quotes, build graphics of any complexity, including 3D, and process more than 60 different types of user-uploaded graphic, audio, text, and other files, including file combinations.
In fact, it is currently the best system dealing with limits, integrals, and the transfer of data between various numerical systems, and its ability to outline solutions has certainly saved a great deal of time and energy for thousands of engineering students.
The project’s internal base is constantly being updated. These improvements include contributions from users, who are able to suggest specific facts and articles, as well as entire algorithms and models to generate more exact answers.
Since 2012 Wolfram Alpha has been working on a freemium basis: the service’s basic functions are still available for free, but pro-subscribers receive results faster, have the option of saving them onto their computers, and can turn off ads.
The project’s appearance was preceded by almost 30 years of work: this ‘knowledge engine’ represented the manifestation of some of the ideas outlined by Stephen in his popular book A New Kind of Science (2002). It was also partially written in the language of Mathematica, which he had helped to develop at the end of the 1970s.
“Little Einstein”, as Wolfram was called when he was young, decided very early on what he was going to do with his life: physics. At the age of 20, Stephen already had a PhD.
In 1979, the newly minted doctor headed up the system engineering for computer algebra at the California Institute of Technology. This was the prototype for Mathematica. As a result of a dispute over rights and intellectual property, Stephen left the project after two years, and in 1987, he founded Wolfram Research, a private company that releases mathematical software.
Mathematica is both a programming language and an application for working with mathematical expressions. It also supports work with graphics and sound. The first version of Mathematica came out in 1988, and version 9.0 came out in 2012. On top of everything else, that version offered the option of analyzing social media and even predicting the probability of given events.