Arguably, he’s one of the best minds of our generation. But so is Stephen Wolfram, the genius behind the semantic search engine Wolfram Alpha (see my post on the future of search in Swedish from 2009).
For argument’s sake, I’d like to place the two of them on opposite sides of each other.
Wolfram Alpha is just such an awesome service. The Wolfram Alpha team constantly teaches the search engine to make advanced deduction from semantic queries. If you ask it, it will tell you which week day you where born, not by showing you a table, but by calculation. It will solve your math problems and show you the derivative of the solution plainly.
Wolfram Alpha is a really smart application, it’s constantly getting better and it truly deserves more recognition. And there’s an air of indie web intent about the whole Wolfram Alpha project. As if they’re a bunch of nerds totally immersed in making the world a better place by creating a really smart computer.
Stephen Wolfram himself is just as cool, especially if you’re into big data and Quantified Self, the way I am. He’s the kind of guy who can track his own email patterns for decades just to be able to do some big data analysis on his personal email usage. I can see why someone would do this, but it most certainly have nothing to do with ROI — and that’s indie, that’s cool.
Stephen Wolfram is the kind of guy who is presented like this on Wikipedia:
Wolfram was educated at Eton, where he amazed and frustrated teachers by his brilliance and refusal to be taught, instead doing other students’ mathematics homework for money. Wolfram published an article on particle physics but claimed to be bored and left Eton prematurely in 1976. He entered St John’s College, Oxford at age 17 but found lectures “awful”. Working independently, Wolfram published a widely cited paper on heavy quarkproduction at age 18 and nine other papers before leaving in 1978 without graduating. He received a Ph.D. in particle physics from the California Institute of Technology at age 20, joined the faculty there and received one of the first MacArthur awards in 1981, at age 21. According to Google Scholar, Stephen Wolfram is cited by over 30,000 publications (up to April 2012) and has an h-index of 58.
So, Wolfram is most definitely a digital rockstar of the intellectual digital elite. And worthy of admiration, obviously.
Ray Kurzweil, he has his fair share of praise on Wikipedia, too.
Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.
Ray Kurzweil is more of a futurist than a strict mathematician. He’s looking into the future by shaping forecasting technologies and he’s also invested in transhumanism and life extension technologies. If you read my earlier post on the human API and the Cybernetic Renaissance, you’ll quickly come to realise that we might have a scary and/or cool cyborgian future in front us — and Ray Kurzweil is one of the guys who’ll probably be leading us into it.
One could argue that, if this was a synopsis for a movie, that Stephen Wolfram would be the grounded genius and Ray Kurzweil the mad scientist who wouldn’t hesitate to install a hard drive into his brain and injecting himself with stem cells in order to become a super human who’d live to be 500 years.
The fact that Ray Kurzweil just recently started working for Google isn’t exactly contradicting such a synopsis. Google started off as the “no evil” company, but lately, that image has been impossible for the search engine to uphold. Google’s power in shaping our collective view of the world is indisputable and with great power comes suspicion.
In any case — the possibility that one or both of these two geniuses will play crucial parts in shaping our futures are exciting to speculate in. And I would argue that Ray Kurzweil is way better positioned to be able to change the world than Stephen Wolfram.
I couldn’t say who’s the smartest of the two of them, simply because I’m not qualified to make such a call. And by not qualified I mean not smart enough. But raw brain power, clarity and creativity are far from the most important aspects of this. Because of their different approaches, I’d place my bet on Ray Kurzweil to be the one making the biggest dent in the universe of the two of them.
Ray Kurzweil simply has a more interesting approach right now.
Because no matter how brilliant Stephen Wolfram is, there will be a very clear boundary for what he can do with Wolfram Alpha. A solitary computational system will be confined to the binary reality of ones and zeroes. Basically electricity on, or electricity off. The human brain and the living organism that carries it however, has four “modes” instead of two.
This is because our DNA strains consists of four connections containing information:
Until computers can emulate the complexity and reproductive cycles of DNA both on a molecular level as well on the organism level, computers will fall very short on a great many things compared to human brains.
If we compare Wolfram Alpha to Google, Wolfram Alpha can accomplish tasks that the Google search engine never could. Much like the way a classic computer could spit out a 1,000 decimals of pi in a split second, where it would take a human mind a lot of effort just to even store the information. Still, Google is way more useful and powerful still, much like the human brain is compared to the computer.
This is because Google makes social assumptions instead of going for precise interpretations or deductions of content. This is how Google’s Page Rank made the process short with search engine AltaVista once upon a time. It used networked human data to make assumptions.
And this is where Ray Kurzweil is well positioned to shape the future at Google. As described in Techcrunch:
Eventually Google will understand why users are searching for information and provide them with answers they didn’t even know they needed. The education of such an omnipotent new mind will take the vast stores of Google’s database. Perhaps more than any other company, explains Kurzweil, Google has access to the “things you read, what you write, in your emails or blog posts, and so on, even your conversations, what you hear, what you say.”
Google can combine the personalized recommendations of a friend (who often know us better than we know ourselves) with the sum of all human knowledge, creating a sort of super best friend.
“This friend of yours, this cybernetic friend, that knows that you that have certain questions about certain health issues or business strategies. And, It can then be canvassing all the new information that comes out in the world every minute and then bring things to your attention without you asking about them.”
Mark my words, Ray Kurzweil will be able to make an immense impact on our future, not necessarily by cracking the mystery of artificial intelligence and creating a self-sufficent SkyNet, but by manifesting a big data swarm brain and harvest our human behaviour and then manifest this data within user-friendly personal web agents. So, we’re back at science fiction again.
The idea of human API “super agents” on the web isn’t new, but if someone’s got the right approach and the resources, it’s Ray Kurzweil.