Sunday, August 4, 2019

Book Review: 'Adventures of a Computational Explorer' by Stephen Wolfram

The basic message of both Stephen Wolfram’s new book and his life is that somehow, everything can be reduced to computation. This levels the playing field, gives researchers a clear path to follow, and in very many ways, is proving not only true, but advantageous. Adventures of a Computational Explorer is the Stephen Wolfram story, as seen through his work and discoveries. Fortunately, he loves to share.

For example, his knowledge engine, Wolfram Alpha’s “goal is to take as much knowledge about the world as possible, and make it computable, then to be able to answer questions as expertly as possible about it.” It is a free online service tapping the knowledge of the world. A favorite example of its power is “What is flying overhead right now?”

He has learned to find ways to make theories applicable in far broader ways. “What I’ve come to realize … is that the same intellectual thoughts processes can be applied not just to what one thinks of as science, but to pretty much anything.” The result is creative thinking in science fiction, music, graphic design, search, analytics and productivity. For starters.

Wolfram lives in a meta universe somewhere above ours. He goes big. He is all about the universe of possible theories on any topic: the universe of possible languages for example, and even the universe of possible universes. His two main theories, from which everything he does derives are the Theory of Computational Equivalence and the Theory of Computational Irreducibility. The only thing missing is the single, simple, underlying theory of all physics, he says. He’s hoping we come up with that soon.

This is a man who has collected every spec of data on himself since 1980. It includes GPS location and steps, phone calls inbound and out, emails inbound (2.3 million) and out, every keystroke he’s ever made (7% are backspaces), every meeting he’s been involved in, onset time and length of phone calls… In total, he proudly claims to have 1.7 million files on himself. Of the 230,000 pieces of paper, most have been scanned and OCR’d, with the OCR text overlaying the image. When he goes to events, he wears a small camera above his ID badge. It takes a photo every 30 seconds, so he can remember everyone he met, everything he saw, and if they didn’t exchange cards, the name on the other person’s badge. “It won’t be long before it’s clear how incredibly useful it all is – and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before,” he says.

There are light moments too. On the launch date of Wolfram Alpha, the knowledge engine, someone asked about the world’s fastest bird, and the system replied: “A frozen chicken will reach 200 mph if you drop it from a plane.”

There is a 40-page chapter explaining Spikey, the Wolfram logo. It is a rhombic hexecontahedron, if that helps. It has 60 sides, all of which are rhomboids in the golden ratio 1.618:1, making them golden rhombuses. Wolfram and his employees went through endless pages of examples they generated, looking for something unique, appealing and dramatic. For years, engineers worked on variations and refinements, and together they determined the ideal version, making it their unique logo. Then, they discovered it is called the giramundo and has been sewn together by women in Brazil for hundreds of years.

The amount of effort that went into it is staggering, but it is no different than anything else at Wolfram. The name for the Wolfram computer language took three decades to determine. They examined how human languages get names, how computer languages get names, how words sound and feel, what images and associations they raise, how long they are, and on and on. Finding nothing that fit the bill, they settled on The Wolfram Language. After 32 years of research and meetings.

Wolfram the CEO is just as different a breed. His meetings are all livestreamed – publicly. Anyone can chime in, and dedicated employees will feed appropriate public comments to the participants for consideration. This is of course a brilliant tactic. It co-opts minds worldwide at no charge. And since Wolfram is one of the very few large corporations that really has nothing to hide, the light of day is not an issue. Much of the company’s great works become free websites, from Wolfram Alpha to Wolfram Tones, which lets composers generate new music themes through computational rules.

The company employs 800 very bright people around the world, and he is in constant touch through conference calls and e-mail. He doesn’t like video conferences because everyone should be able to multitask without seeming to not be paying full attention to the boss. Wolfram is the place you want to work.

It all amounts to a strange sort of autobiography. Wolfram describes how he thinks, how he works, and how he plays. His work is his play. It’s all he does, and he does it from home, visiting his office a few times a year. In the book, he devotes nearly 50 pages in one chapter to describe the infrastructure he has built for his own (prodigious) productivity. This goes as far as calculating the optimum speed on a treadmill so that no one will know he’s on a treadmill, as well as for optimum control of his laptop and mouse while on it. He keeps a small collection of ready-packed plastic bags filled for different functions, such as Trade Show or Office. Ready to grab and go. His desk computer has two screens, one private and one public that everyone can see on the livestreamed calls. In 400+ pages, his children are only mentioned insofar as they have occasionally contributed to his work. His wife is never named. It’s all about optimizing his personal productivity every waking minute.
It’s a remarkable book on a remarkable style, but it’s not a slam dunk. Wolfram simply repurposed articles and posts without editing. This means you get sentences that begin with “Just last week I …” which only make sense if you look up the date of the post under the title. He also assumes a fairly high level of knowledge, particularly about acronyms. You’re supposed to know what IUPAC and KVM stand for, because he won’t explain them.

The book is delightfully filled with images. Many are screenshots that show what he describes in the text above them. But they are so small you must have a magnifying glass handy or you won’t see what he’s writing about, making the whole effort pointless. All the intricate graphics they generated and the words on the webpages are wasted. I hope the final version has the images in color, because my review copy was pure monochrome, useless when he indicates the gold bar means this and the brown bar means that. Interestingly, there are no links to online services or references for what he writes. And nothing in the book credits meetings or collaborations or even inspirations from other scientists (though a couple times he mentions employees who have dug deep). It’ all Wolfram all the time.

These quibbles aside, Adventures of a Computational Explorer is unlike any other autobiography, and a noteworthy addition to the canon.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

Order it on Amazon today.
Two kings. Two princes. One queen. The true story of five aristocrats separated by time, culture, and circumstance -- all of them bound to the United States by accidents of history and left to hope for a tomorrow better than today. Prepare for a vision of the American Dream as few others have ever seen it.