Interview with a Wolfram

Conrad Wolfram is a man dripping with ideas and innovation. He is also a decent, unassuming and thoroughly pleasant guy. He has a high powered vision of the world 'where computation meets knowledge.' Since May 2009, when it was released for general use, Wolfram Alpha has caused some waves. For the Wolfram brothers Stephen and Conrad, Alpha is less a search engine, more an answer engine, because it processes queries against structured data rather than simply presenting a list of pages or hyperlinks found through word-matching.

I had the pleasure to hear Conrad Wolfram give a keynote speech on semantic search at LearnTEC recently, and I was even more delighted when I got to sit with him on the train all the way back to the airport, and the opportunity to converse with him about semantic web, computation research, intelligent search and the nature of knowledge. A graduate of Cambridge University and now Strategic Director of Wolfram Research, Conrad has some marked ideas about technology and learning. He is also good friends with a number of luminaries in the world of computing including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. He drops their names into the conversation as if they are sitting across the room from us. Software engineer Theodore Gray is mentioned in the conversation, and we discuss how Wolfram research is developing. Conrad also tells me how he felt just before walking on stage to present his TED talk. We talk about how Wolfram's earlier intelligent knowledge engine Mathematica was founded. We talk about the future of knowledge, we touch on David McCandless' and Hans Rosling's amazing data visualisation tools, and we discuss the need for better understanding of how to use search terms. Time went by quickly and we parted company at Frankfurt Airport, promising to stay in touch. As I made my way over to the check in counters, my mind went back to his speech earlier in the day...

During his LearnTEC keynote, Conrad Wolfram (pictured left with conference chair Peter Henning and I) had given a live demonstration of both the Wolfram Alpha answer engine itself and also a new experimental site which 'I'm not supposed to show you just yet.' It is impressive stuff, with powerful computation that goes beyond simple interpretation of the words entered, generates 3 dimensional visualisation of data and promises the capability to automatically create widgets when the user asks the right questions. How old was Queen Victoria in 1890? It will give you the answer and then create a widget to deal with other, similar queries. Where is Victoria Falls? It provides a location map, and offers a number of geolocation options. The four pillars of WA, said Conrad Wolfram, were linguistic analysis, curated data, dynamic computation and computed presentation. If used correctly and intelligently, WA is indeed an extremely powerful research and computational tool.

Conrad Wolfram also had a lot to say about learning during his presentation. He argued that the value chain of knowledge is changing. By this he suggested that knowledge brokering is no longer the domain of the experts, but echoing sentiments of the wisdom of crowds and the power of tribes, he argued that repositories of knowledge can become even more powerful if they are searched intelligently and using visualisation computation. And as each new node and connection is created by individuals, a new democratisation of knowledge emerges - that is Wolfram's vision. 'If you drive yourself,' he said, 'you learn more about the route than you would if you are a passenger.' This suggests that most search engines make the enquirer a mere passenger in the journey to knowledge, whilst WA puts the enquirer firmly in the driving seat.

And what about education and Wolfram Alpha? He has a message for teachers: 'Stop teaching calculating', he advises, 'and start teaching maths.' The tools are already available for students to do calculation, what they now need, he states, is the ability to test things and verify results. The knowledge balance in schools, said Wolfram, is all wrong at present. There is too much knowledge giving and not enough opportunity for students to test things, experiment and discover for themselves.

Images by Gudrun Porath

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Interview with a Wolfram by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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