Stephen Wolfram wants to leave Google, Wikipedia in the dust

(Courtesy of Wolfram Research)
Stephen Wolfram describes his new Wolfram language as a new step in the development of Wolfram Mathematica. (Courtesy of Wolfram Research)

Stephen Wolfram’s recent blog post that “something very big is coming” must surely rank among the most buzzed about tech announcements of the year, right next to Elon Musk’s cryptic comments about the Hyperloop. This is Stephen Wolfram, after all – a legendary former boy genius who has been mentioned in the same breath as Isaac Newton and who is generally recognized as one of the most innovative minds of our era.

The problem, of course, is that nobody really knows what Wolfram has in mind. Wolfram’s blog post combined a mind boggling number of tech buzzwords to hype the arrival of a new programming language, Wolfram Language. In just the first paragraph of his post, Wolfram managed to use the terms “computational knowledge,” “symbolic programming,” “algorithm automation,” “dynamic interactivity,” “natural language,” “computable documents,” “the cloud,” “connected devices,” “symbolic ontology,” and “algorithm discovery.” (Whew.)

What the heck is Wolfram thinking?

In short, the new Wolfram Language could be just about anything – anything from a radically new way to control the “Internet of Things” to a way to let children program just about anything using everyday natural language speech. Terms like “sentient code,” which surfaced in a recent interview with VentureBeat, seem to hint at a future in which the machines really are alive. (Or, at least, possessing some sort of innate knowledge.) In fact, it’s a bit maddening to read through all the different interpretations for what Wolfram has in mind.

Given that even Wolfram admits that he has trouble fitting a description of his new offering into a conventional elevator pitch, here’s one possible interpretation of Wolfram’s “something very big is coming” announcement: Programming has emerged as the new framework for understanding and making sense all of the technology buzzwords in our lives. The cloud, for example, used to be something daunting and esoteric that was the solitary domain of big Silicon Valley storage companies. Now the cloud is shorthand for describing how an app can help us access all of our data and information on any device at any time.

As such, Wolfram’s new programming language represents a direct challenge to Google, hinting at a future where “computation” finally replaces “search.” That means that, instead of search engines like Google giving you an answer based on information it already has, Wolfram Language would help you “compute” the answer on the fly. Google can’t look up at the night sky and figure out where the International Space Station is at any point in time – but Wolfram hints that his computational language might be able to perform such magic. As a result, he dismisses Google’s recent innovations like the Knowledge Graph and predicts the end of the Wikipedia age of knowledge.

The announcement of Wolfram Language is just the latest evidence that 2013 is the year that programming grew up. Learning to code has become the hip new thing for aspiring entrepreneurs. For young kids, coders such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are the new celebrities. And, during next week’s Computer Science Education Week, Zuckerberg and Dorsey will be among those celebrated during the first-ever “Hour of Code,” a new initiative by Code.org to introduce 10 million students to computer programming. This all fits into Wolfram’s world view. In his groundbreaking work, A New Kind of Science, which was published to so much fanfare nearly a decade ago, Wolfram suggested that computer science might be the basis for, yes, a “new kind of science.”

Wolfram wasn’t far off, if programming indeed becomes the basis for a new way to view the world. In the near future, we will all be programmers to one extent or another, and all of our devices – wherever they are located in the world – will all be hooked up to the Internet and capable of communicating with each other. Only we won’t think of ourselves as programmers and we won’t think of our objects as devices. Children will start programming things as soon as they can pick up a rattle. Teenagers will be able to start billion-dollar companies, thanks to a few lines of clever code. And, thanks to partnerships like the one between Wolfram Alpha and Raspberry Pi, they will be able to do so at a price point so low that programming will be accessible for billions of people around the globe, no matter where they are on the economic pyramid.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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