Jim Dey: Wolfram's hat trick


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It's been a long time since Stephen Wolfram was a child prodigy.

Now 56 — he got his doctorate in physics at age 20 from CalTech — the onetime wunderkind has evolved into an elder statesman in the world of high technology, but not one who's resting on his laurels.

As Wolfram prepared to host the annual Wolfram Technology Conference that begins today in Champaign and runs through Thursday, he was wrestling with a keynote address in which he planned to discuss what he hopes will be a major advance — Wolfram Language, a computer program designed to assist computer programmers. He's written a book to go with it.

"It's a way for people to create programs much more easily than it was before," Wolfram said Monday. "I think it's going to be an important thing."

Wolfram Language represents the third major product produced by Wolfram Research, the Champaign-based company that he founded in 1987. The privately-held company employs roughly 700 people worldwide, including what Wolfram describes as "400 and something here."

Although a remote CEO — he runs the company from his home in Concord, Mass. — Wolfram is a hands-on boss who turns his game-changing ideas into computer software that shakes up the status quo.

He released Mathematica — Latin for mathematics — in 1988. It's software designed to automate mathematical calculations that is widely used in education and research.

Twenty-one years later — in 2009 — Wolfram released Wolfram Alpha, a knowledge engine that is integrated into the Siri option contained in Apple's iPhone.

"It answers questions," Wolfram replied when asked to explain what Wolfram Alpha does.

Now comes Wolfram Language, what Wolfram calls a "new kind of computer language" that he expects to have a "broad application."

How broad? Wolfram can't say. His company produces the software and what people do with it is limited only by their imaginations.

Endless possibilities

As one might expect from a visionary, Wolfram's imagination runs wild. He said that "I always have a long list" of multi-year projects to pursue. Some have reached their gestational stage while others will have to wait for what he calls the "ambient (surrounding on all sides) technology" to turn an idea into a reality.

But here are a couple.

What about software that addresses molecular-scale technology — in other words, software assisting the design of any kind of machine on a molecular scale? The chemistry and the materials science have to be just right to get it done.

How about computer software that provides an automatic medical diagnosis, what Wolfram calls "sensor-based medicine"? Plug the medical data in and the software generates the diagnosis.

"The time is almost right for that," he said.

Wolfram grew up in England and as a youngster found his intellectual interest sparked by the space program. That interest didn't last long, but the physics on which the space program was built became a source of fascination.

"I started writing physics papers when I was 15," he said.

Physics, of course, relies heavily on math, setting off another intellectual adventure. Eventually, Wolfram abandoned his career as a university professor to embark on an "epic-long journey on automatic calculations."

"That eventually led to Mathematica," he said.

Here comes the son

Enough time has passed that the prodigy now has prodigies of his own.

Married and the father of four, Wolfram has two sons and two daughters.

One son — who's 19 — has his own "real estate-related" business that he's run since he was 14. Wolfram said he's living in Chicago.

The other son, 15-year-old Christopher, is what Wolfram described as a "tech kid" who will be speaking at the conference Wednesday on "Educational Analytics in the Wolfram Language."

Wolfram said his older daughter is a freshman at the University of Chicago while his youngest is "a happy 10-year-old."

When it comes to science and technology, Wolfram is all business. He says the challenge of overseeing a successful business isn't as difficult as the science and technology on which his business is based.

Wolfram said he likes to pursue ideas that are "intellectually interesting but people really care about." In other words, important but also of economic value in the marketplace.

The main advantage of his company's financial success is that "we can chart our own course and do projects that we want to do." He speculated that he would have been unable to attract financial backers for Wolfram Alpha, the information program, because few would have believed in it enough to invest. Because he didn't need that kind of backing, Wolfram said he and his colleagues were able to make a "big step in artificial intelligence."

It's pretty clear that Wolfram's work doubles as his recreation. But what else does the brainiac do for fun?

"I have four children. They are very entertaining," he said.

Anything else?

"My wife and I typically see a movie every week," Wolfram said, recommending "The Martian" because "I thought it was wonderfully upbeat."

Mostly, though, he does what he always has done and has no intention of slowing down.

"I think I am more productive now than I have ever been," Wolfram said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.