Stephen Wolfram

The Quest for Computable Knowledge: A Longer View

April 29, 2009 —

As people might imagine, I’m pretty busy right now getting Wolfram|Alpha ready for launch. But yesterday afternoon I took a few hours out to give an early preview of Wolfram|Alpha at Harvard.

There were lots of interesting questions and comments, particularly about the broader intellectual context of Wolfram|Alpha.

There’s really a very long and rich history behind the kinds of things we’re doing with Wolfram|Alpha.

And in fact, a little while ago my staff took some notes of mine and assembled a timeline about the history of “The Quest for Computable Knowledge.” I think it makes interesting reading; there’s quite a diverse collection of elements, some very well known, some not.

I’ve always been particularly struck by Gottfried Leibniz’s role. He really had pretty much the whole idea of Wolfram|Alpha—300 years ago.

At the end of the 1600s he came to believe that somehow there must be a way to mechanize the resolution of all human arguments.

He imagined that one could represent human discourse using logic and mathematics. Then he imagined that one could use a machine to work out answers from this—and in fact he even built some small mechanical calculators himself.

He also realized that to provide raw material for his mechanization it would be necessary to assemble lots of knowledge. So he worked hard to get libraries constructed, and to invent systems for organizing them.

Of course there were some elements missing. But Leibniz really had the right basic idea.

It’s just that you can’t build a Wolfram|Alpha with manuscripts and clockwork. And in fact, I think now is pretty much the first time in history that technology and ideas have reached the point where Wolfram|Alpha is at all practical.

Of course, it’s still a lot of work… and it’s time for me to get back to that now!

(By the way, Leibniz actually went further in his thinking about what might be knowable—and if you’re interested in seeing more, I happened to talk about this a couple of years ago.)