Is your theory that if one universe can be generated from simple algorithms, all universes can and have been? Or would be?
The only thing we can meaningfully talk about in science, as far as empirical science is concerned, is our actual universe: There's only one. Anything else we say about it is a purely theoretical thing. Now, the question would be—we might then say, gosh, what must be happening is that somewhere out there, not in any way that we can ever be aware of, but somewhere out there every possible universe must be going on. That might be a possible theory. It's not a testable theory. There's no way we could test that theory because we're stuck in our universe. And if that theory was correct, then the overwhelming likelihood is that the rules for our universe are very, very complicated, because if there are gazillions of universes out there and we're just in a random universe, the randomly chosen universe will be one with very complicated rules. It's like, each universe could be labeled by an integer. Well, there are an infinite number of integers. If we're a random integer, it's going to be a big integer. It's not going to be '8' or something. There's no reason for it to be 8 if it's just randomly chosen.
Now, I have a sneaking suspicion that when we really understand what's going on, that—typically, in the history of science, those kinds of metaphysical questions have crumbled because they weren't quite the right question, or things worked in a way that sort of worked around the question rather than having to centrally ask the question. My sneaking suspicion is that what we'll discover is that any one of a large collection of possible rules for the universe is equivalent in generating our universe. I don't know if I'm correct. That's just a guess. Something bizarre like that will happen, I suspect, to make that question of "Why this universe and not another?" not really be a meaningful question. It's a situation that's like—in a lot of cases in the history of science, people figure out a lot about how stuff works and then they say, "Well, why was it set up this way and not another?" And Newton was famous for saying, "Once the planets are originally set up, then [his] laws of motion can figure out what can happen. But how the planets were originally set up, well, that's not a question we can answer in science." Now, 300 years later, we know a lot about how the planets were originally set up. One of the nicer things I always like about philosophers at that time, like Locke and people like that, would say: the fact that the number of planets is nine, eight, whatever it was in their day—that number is not a necessary truth about our universe. That number is somehow an arbitrary number. That was what they thought. They didn't think that number—just like I'm saying if our universe turns out to be universe number 1,005 or something, that that's just an arbitrary number. In their day, they couldn't imagine that you could compute the number would be seven or something. Now, in our day we know that if we have a star about the size of the sun and you have a solar system and it's about the age of our solar system, we know roughly how many planets there will be typically in such a thing. We can compute it. But in their day, that was an inconceivable idea, to be able to compute that. And I think that—I think we're at too early a stage. It feels a bit wrong to say, gosh, our universe must be one of the simple ones, so let's go out and search for it—because it seems like a sort of anti-Copernican kind of claim. It seems like a very arrogant claim about us and our universe. Why should we be one of the simple ones, not one of the ones that's incredibly complicated? My guess is, that question will resolve itself in some way that isn't quite centrally that question, but I don't yet know what that is.
The potential for your enterprise to have success and for you to actually discover, or determine, what the rule of the universe is relies on it being one of the simple ones.
That's correct. The approach that I know to take is one like algorithm discovery: search a trillion algorithms and see which ones are useful. And those are fairly simple algorithms that you are enumerating. There are fairly simple rules for the algorithms, so similarly—if our universe has rules that were a few lines of code long, then we could enumerate it and find it, but if our universe is the size of the source code of Mathematica or something, we'll never ever, ever find it by searching. It's just absurdly combinatorily far away.
I think it's a very basic fact about science—one piece of empirical hope, so to speak, in this direction is probably the most basic fact about science of all, which is that there is order in the universe. It might not be that way. It might be that every different part of the universe, every particle of the universe behaves in its own special way, but it's a fact noted by theologians a couple of thousand years ago that the most remarkable fact about the universe is that it has laws. There is order in the universe and it's describable by laws, and it might not have been that way. It might have been that the universe was full of miracles going on and all sorts of funky things happening that were not governed by laws, but in fact it has laws, and the very fact that it has laws and is orderly at some level shows that it is not as complicated as it might be. And that gives one some hope that it actually could be really simple. And simple enough that we, in the early part of the 21st century, can use our computers and go out there and find it. It's a little bit like the question: when does Wolfram Alpha become possible? I started thinking about Wolfram Alpha–type things 40 years ago now, and at that time it was probably impossible. If I had started building that when I was 12 years old, I would have finished it about the same time that I actually did finish it.
Maybe later. Some of the necessary intervening steps were done by you, and you wouldn't have been doing that if you were trying to . . .
I can't in any way prove that this is the right time in history to go see if there's a simple rule for the universe. The thing I find really surprising and remarkable and not what I expected at all is that one runs into "obviously not our universe" candidates as quickly as one does. I really thought that one would be searching billions, trillions of candidates before one found one to exclude very easily.
It's really a funny question: If there is one of these early universes that is a rich and complex universe that happens to not be our universe, that in itself will be a very bizarre discovery, because one could say, Well, there's a universe and it's got an eight-and-a-half-dimensional bizarre kind of particle in it, and it's got this and this. And it will be surprising. So one thing that's a question in physics now is, Is there a way to assemble the universe so that it's self-consistent but different from the way that it's actually assembled now? And we'll know that. In the worst case, by examining these candidate universes, we'll start to know answers to questions like that.
At a purely personal level, the fact that it's possible to do Wolfram Alpha slows down at least my efforts at finding these things about the universe, because—for me, at least, I tend to be one of these people who works on large projects, and I tend to always have a supply of things that I think will be possible one day, and the question is, What decade can we actually try to do them in? Because if one picks it wrong, one will spend the whole decade trying to build infrastructure that even allows one to get to the starting point. This is the decade when computational knowledge has become possible, and there's a lot of just really, really interesting things that I think can happen from it. And I think the ways in which—people's expectation of how they interact with the world is really changing and I think can change as a result of computational knowledge, because people just don't expect that they can answer questions about the world now. The Web and search engines and such have changed that to some extent. There was a time when basic facts were not things that most people thought you could get easy access to. It took a lot of effort to get to basic facts. Now we can get to basic facts, but can we figure out specific answers to questions? Well, that's what computational knowledge is trying to do, and it will become routinely the case that people live their lives by being able to answer the questions that come up. Maybe they'll automatically be answered for them in some sort of preemptive way.
But I think one of the things, again, that has happened today is that there was a time long ago—early on our timeline, so to speak—when facts were only available to a few people in monasteries who had access to the books. And then facts got spread out—there were libraries, books people bought, education—and then along came the Web, and facts were pretty readily available for all. At this point, there's still expert question-answering but still very concentrated. If you want to know the answer to some question, you have to go find an expert, and that expert is in short supply perhaps, and it's all a big heavyweight process. I think what computational knowledge is going to do is essentially democratize that process and make it the case that if our civilization can answer the question, then you can answer it in five seconds. In other words, there may be questions that our civilization doesn't know the answer to; there may be questions where computational irreducibility intervenes and the question isn't really answerable. But if it's in principle answerable, then I think we can very much democratize that process and let anybody answer it quickly.
Is it fair to say that that is the fundamental aim of Wolfram Alpha: to foster and democratize computational knowledge?
That's what we're trying to do. That's the big effort. That's the thing: Absent these various realizations, one might have thought that with computational knowledge, we'll really not be able to get very far; it's very specialized and won't be able to be generally useful. And for me, that's the big metadiscovery of the past two years: that at this time in history, it's actually possible to do this. I don't think it will get progressively easier to do it—there's not going to be a dramatic moment when it gets much easier—but it sort of came over the horizon, it became possible, and it will gradually get easier. But this is the time.
To what extent does Wolfram Alpha's ongoing development still require it to be your primary focus?
Me personally? I'm spending all my time on this right now because it's really interesting and there's a lot of—the actual process of adding more domains of knowledge, we figured out the framework for how to do that. I get involved because I find it interesting and I think we can do it somewhat faster and better that way. But the main thing—given this idea of computational knowledge, you've only seen the beginning with Wolfram Alpha as it exists today. There's coming real soon, one of the big things is—today you communicate with Wolfram Alpha by feeding it pieces of text. In the near future, you'll be able to upload images to it. So, instead of giving it a linguistic description, you're giving it an image.
Will it tell you what the image is? Or what other things can you do with the image?
Not yet. It can't tell you what the image is yet. The typical thing is that you'll mix some linguistic thing with, I don't know, "closest paint color." You got an image of some thing, and it knows the paints and it can see the image and figure that out. Or you might be able to say—there's all sorts of tricky things that you can do. Like there's a shadow in the image and we know what the geotagging of the image is and we know where the sun is and we can figure out based on the length of the shadow, we can figure out how high the thing is and all sorts of fancy things like that. The problem of recognizing images, we're working on that one, but it's a knotty problem. The most interesting things will probably be—one of the things that's always fun with this type of technology is that until you've built it to some level and you can really play with it fully, it's actually quite hard to tell what it will feel like. I know you can do a lot of really good toy things with uploading images and using images as input, but what will be the things that are the really, really useful things you can do? That will become clear once one is routinely doing it. Other things that are coming, like being able to get sensor data flowing into the system and asking questions of the data that's coming from some sensor that one has: you can say what types of flights are overhead and what speeds. You can get things from seismologists or weather stations. What I mean is your own personal data, like you connect it to your IMAP server and you'll be able to analyze the sequence of your receipt times of e-mails and things like that and be able to plot that as compared to when the sun rose on a particular day, and so on.
How else can we expect to see Wolfram Alpha develop in the near future?
I mentioned these things about preemptive delivery of information. Being able to provide knowledge based on what it can tell is going on for you, rather than based on what you specifically ask it, that's one type of thing. Another type of thing is watching what's happening in the world and being able to automatically figure out what's interesting. We have an unprecedented collection of feeds of all kinds coming into our servers, and we know all these kinds of things. We can see this peak in this curve: There's something. What we want it to do is figure out what's interesting. Of all the stuff that's coming in, what's newsworthy. What's worth telling people about and what's just the normal course of what happens on a Friday afternoon? That's another kind of thing: being able to figure out—because we do have the largest collection of data about different things going on around the world that anybody's every assembled. It comes in in real time, and we should be able to figure out what's happening, globally, what are the interesting things that are happening.
Another direction is, given that you have a complex task that you want to figure out how to do—that task might involve: you buy this component from this company, you connect it in this way, you do this, you do this. The question is, Can we figure out in some almost creative way, given that you describe your task in such-and-such a fashion, can we figure out how to achieve that task? How to perform that task? That's a thing we're trying to work towards. There's small cases. Like right now, if you type in some funny resistance, we'll be able to compute what pair of serial and parallel resistors will make that particular resistance. That's a very trivial case. But a much more complicated case is: One says, "This is what I want to make, and I'm going to describe it," and I would go to a design engineer and say, "I want a thing that has this property and this property and this property." They'll make it for me, figure out how to do that. That's a challenge that in a sense mixes together several different kinds of things. It mixes together—perhaps there may be a spark of creativity needed on the part of that design engineer. Maybe we can find that by searching some chunk of the computational universe. It mixes, but we have to know what actual resistors exist. How strong is this material? How far is it from this place to that place? So we have to have knowledge about the world. So the concept there is to what extent can we actually go from human description of the human's goals to how do you achieve those goals with the stuff that exists in the world and the stuff we can compute? And maybe a spark of inspiration that perhaps we can also get automatically. One of the most striking things to me is—in terms of this human inspiration thing—a few years ago we put up this site called WolframTones, which is a website that generates music based on a search of the computational universe. The thing that has been most bizarre to me about that is I keep on running into people saying, "I'm a composer and I use this site as inspiration." That's sort of the exact opposite of what I would have expected. The role of the computer versus the role of the human. I would have expected the human as the one going, "I have an inspiration. I've got a human-created spark, and now I'm going to use the computer to work out that human-created spark and render it in the right way." But instead what's happening is that these things that one is plucking from the computational universe, those are the sparks that the humans are then working through to develop into something that they find interesting. It's a simple case, but it's an encouraging sign. One of the big things that comes out of that is this mass-customization idea of, How expensive is creativity? What's the economics of creativity? Can you automate some of creativity? This idea of going from a description of a complex objective to how is that achieved—can you get the spark of inspiration automatically?
Sometimes you just have to try it, and then you will know.
How many tries will it take for a robot to do a kickflip?
Wolfram Alpha says:
Let's see it happen!