Stephen Wolfram, Founder at Wolfram Research


Cool Tools Show 180: Stephen Wolfram

Our guest this week is Stephen Wolfram. Stephen is the creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha and the Wolfram Language; he’s the author of A New Kind of Science; and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. Over the course of nearly four decades, Stephen has been a pioneer in the development and application of computational thinking—and has been responsible for many discoveries, inventions and innovations in science, technology and business.

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Show notes:

Wolfram Alpha is a thing for answering questions using computational knowledge. And I use it every day for all kinds of things. If I’m going to walk outside I go to Wolfram Alpha, usually on my phone, and just type in sunburn. And it will figure out based on where I am predictions for UV index and so on. Plus, skin type data and so on and will tell me what the expected time for me to get sunburned is. It gives you sort of an information presentation. Here’s another thing you can do. You can just go to Wolfram Alpha and type in some first name. Like Kevin, for example. And this is a good party trick. Because it knows how many people called Kevin have been born every year since the late 1800’s, and it knows mortality tables and so on. It can figure out what the distribution of Kevins in America is. And it says, “The most common age for a Kevin in America is 47 years.” And there are about 1 million Kevins in America. And it’s a good guess when you’re talking to somebody, particularly with a slightly unusual name, that they will be an age that’s really close to the most common age age. Wolfram Alpha powers kind of the knowledge component of Siri, and now also of Alexa. And so, we’ve sort of been the unique place that’s been trying to make knowledge about the world computable. From my point of view, I end up using Wolfram Alpha every day to figure out sort of things that are either I’m curious about, or that I need to make some decision about.

Wolfram Language
I use this thing called Wolfram Language, which is what I’ve been building for the last 30-something years, and I use that for lots of time every day. At some level it’s intended to be, at least in the software world, a kind of a tool to end all tools, so to speak. Because the goal of our language is to automate as much as possible, and to make it so that one is as closely as possible from forming a computational thought about what one wants to do, to actually being able to get the computer to automatically execute things. One of the points of the Wolfram Language is that it’s a language that can be read not only by computers, but also by humans. It’s kind of like the analogy is a few hundred years ago people invented math notation. Before that time, if you wanted to write down some mathematical fact, you had to use your natural language, Latin or whatever it is, to write it down. And then people invented math notation, and suddenly it was possible to write down and explain, and communicate math in a streamlined way. And that’s what launched things like algebra and calculus and so on. So similarly now, we have kind of a way to represent computational thoughts in a streamlined way that both computer and humans can understand. And that means that we get a new way to communicate information, which is this thing I call computational essays, which are kind of a mixture of a little piece of text, and then a piece of computational language.

Mobile Laptop Harness & Desk
I had only figured out recently that this was something that would actually work. I figured out like a decade ago that you can type while you’re walking on a treadmill. People believe that typing on treadmill, that you can’t do it when you’re walking it more than like half a mile an hour. But that’s not true. You can do it up to, at least for me, up to about two and a half miles an hour, and that it just depends on having the right mechanics for how you support your wrists. In terms of walking outside, I am lucky enough to have a decently large plot of land that doesn’t have other people on it that I can walk around, so to speak. So that prevents certain kinds of, “oh, there’s a strange thing I didn’t know was there that I’m going to trip over.” But I think, my theory is, that I have good enough peripheral vision with this that I actually wouldn’t trip over anything. I’ve been doing this for six months or something, and so far I haven’t tripped over anything. I typically walk for two hours.

Citroën SEETROËN Motion Sickness Glasses
I’m sort of surprised they work, but I keep on using them and they keep on working. They’re glasses that I got from some French startup. They have fluid in little kind of circular containers. And the idea is that the fluid in the glasses responds to the effect of gravity of where you are. And so, when a car is turning, for example, that will always sort of maintain a correct sort of artificial horizon for you. And it kind of is bizarrely reminiscent of what one imagines is actually going on in the semicircular canals in one’s ear. But, somehow seeing that with one’s eyes helps convince one’s brain that everything is okay. It’s been quite interesting in it’s probably added many hours of productive work to my life being able to use a computer and not get carsick.


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