"It's hard to foresee the ultimate consequences of what we're doing. But the beginning is to provide a way to inject sophisticated computation and knowledge into everything — and to make it universally accessible to humans, programs and machines, in a way that lets all of them interact at a vastly richer and higher level than ever before."
It's a grandiose-sounding mission statement, that, like so many others that flood from the startup-scene hype factories — though with far fewer buzzwords — and therefore easy to ignore. Except for one little thing.
It was written by Stephen Wolfram.
Wolfram is the chief designer of Mathematica, a comprehensive computation platform for science, engineering, advanced mathematics and other grunty stuff, and of Wolfram Alpha, the computational knowledge engine that helps power Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Bing, amongst others.
He's also the author of A New Kind of Science, a book which some — me included — think has the potential to revolutionise scientific thinking as much as Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica of 1687 did. And just like Newton's book, it'll take a century for the implications to be understood.
Newton conceptualised the universe as a grand mechanism, befitting the clockwork engineering of the time — giving scientists permission, as it were, to deploy mathematics as tool for understanding pretty much anything.
Wolfram conceptualises the universe as a grand computation, with cellular automata as a fundamental mechanisms. Scientists are given permission to deploy computation as a tool for understanding pretty much anything.
Which brings me to Wolfram's recent announcements.
That grand mission statement is from Wolfram's blog post of last week announcing the Wolfram Language, which he describes as a general-purpose knowledge-based language that covers all forms of computing in a new way.
"In the Wolfram Language my concept from the very beginning has been to create a single tightly integrated system in which as much as possible is included right in the language itself.
"And so in the Wolfram Language, built right into the language, are capabilities for laying out graphs or doing image processing or creating user interfaces or whatever. Inside there's a giant web of algorithms — by far the largest ever assembled, and many invented by us. And there are then thousands of carefully designed functions set up to use these algorithms to perform operations as automatically as possible."
We're talking things like signal processing with built-in functions for everything from Fourier transforms and digital and analog filters to displaying a spectrogram; financial data visualisation; social network analysis; cloud functions and deployment. "Largest ever assembled" indeed.
But wait, there's more.
On Thursday Wolfram announced that Wolfram Language and Mathematica would be bundled free with every Raspberry Pi. It's an unfinished technology preview right now, but the implications are breathtaking.
"I think it's pretty amazing that we're now at the point where all the knowledge and computation in the Wolfram Language can run in a $25 computer," Wolfram writes. "And I think that it's the beginning of something very important. Because it means that going forward it's going to be technically possible to embed the Wolfram Language in pretty much any new machine or system. In effect immediately injecting high-level intelligence and capabilities."
While Raspberry Pi runs the Wolfram Language some 10 to 20 times slower than a current-model laptop, data gathered by an embedded device's sensors could be passed off to the cloud for analysis, then passed back to the device so it can act on the results. And sophisticated results could be achieved with just a few lines of code.
What Wolfram has just done is create a comprehensive unified computation platform for pretty much any application that'll run pretty much anywhere, and that'll run on embedded hardware that pretty much every hacker and tinkerer can afford.
If you thought that those videos of swarming nanocopters were cool, well, you ain't seen nothing yet.