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New tools help professionals in almost any field, and create the building blocks for an intelligent cloud

Stephen Wolfram, Ph.D. has built many a brilliant piece of code.  
 
His Mathematica software is relatively intuitive to use, is blazingly fast for such a multi-purpose code (run MatLab versus Mathematica for a simple Monte Carlo simulation if you don't believe this), and supports a massive range of mathematical applications.  His Wolfram|Alpha search engine offers both natural language capabilities and a wealth of math knowledge in real time.  It can find a song or it can solve all sorts of equations including polynomials, definite/indefinite integrals, and systems of line equations -- all in real time from the cloud.  And his computable document format (CDF) allows users to embed powerful, interactive programs within documents -- the dream of many users frustrated by the rudimentary scripting capabilities of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) Office.
 
I. A Bold New Kind of Language
 
Now Mr. Wolfram is expanding his dream to a whole new set of cloud services and APIs, which creep his cloud scarily close to the capabilities need to both accomplish radical science and perhaps even develop cloud-based artificial intelligence.
 
The new effort is anchored on the publication of a series of APIs that expose the Wolfram Language for programmer use.  For the most part Wolfram Language is not something new. It already exists and is used as the code backbone for Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, and CDF.  From that you should be able to extrapolate that it's pretty fast, it features a diverse set of mathematical built-in functions, and it supports a broad range of pleasing graphical output.
 
Compared to other programming language like Java- or C-family languages, Wolfram Language is much closer to natural human language making it easier to learn, understand, and read.  Yet despite this it's still rivals its more abstracted peers in pure performance.

Wolfram Language

Stephen Wolfram describes the language writing:

We call it the Wolfram Language because it is a language. But it’s a new and different kind of language. It’s a general-purpose knowledge-based language. That covers all forms of computing, in a new way.

There are plenty of existing general-purpose computer languages. But their vision is very different—and in a sense much more modest—than the Wolfram Language. They concentrate on managing the structure of programs, keeping the language itself small in scope, and relying on a web of external libraries for additional functionality. 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.

In other words, competing languages approach code kind of like a minimalist set of workshop tools. They give you a nice hammer, a set of functional screwdrivers, a drill, and your basic saws.  But what if you want to seal things together?  What if you want to cut things in a special way?  What if you want to bend things or manipulate special kinds of materials?  The answer inevitably is "go to the hardware store".

hardware store
Wolfram Language is no minimalist toolbox.  It's the entire hardware store. [Image Source: Michael Sears]

By contrast, Wolfram Language makes no claims to minimalism.  It's goal is to give you the entire hardware store and make everything inside as good at its task as posible.
Wolfram bunny Wolfram bunny 2
Wolfram Language lets you manipulate and display data in strange and beautiful ways.

One of the most frustrating topics for new programmers is the lack of simple visualization solutions. Sure you can make a GUI with QT or Visual Studio, but what if you want to display a 3D graph?  Such a challenge might be feasible if you make your living as a computer scientist, but what if you're a wealth manager with basic programming knowledge who just wants to leverage their basic programming knowledge to deliver a dynamite presentation without having to become a programming wizard?
 
II. Closing the Gap Between Data and Visualization
 
Mr. Wolfram's company isn't the only one to try to close the gap between programming languages and meaningful visualization.  Microsoft has their XNA Studio and associated libraries.  There's the aforementioned MatLab from The MathWorks, Inc.  But Mr. Wolfram is convince that his tool is simply better than these rival solutions for the typical things most researchers range from medical professionals to financial experts to human resources to chemical researchers want to do.  He brags:

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.

Stephen Wolfram
Stephen Wolfram believes he has the tool to change the way we program.
[Image Source: Wolfram Research Comp.]

Wolfram Language is quite possibly unique because it starts with an industry leading language for computation and display of meaningful information relating to math and statistics -- a task that underlies nearly every major professional field.  Few languages do this competently in the first place.  And arguably none of them have evolved in the direction Wolfram Language has, taking on natural language capabilities to not only solve and graph discrete integrals, but to know the difference between Daft Punk and Stars, or the difference between Stars (the band) and stars (the celestial bodies) based on other terms.
 
In his blog Stephen Wolfram shows this picture depicting all the visualization, math, and natural language capabilities of Wolfram Language today:

Wolfram Language applications

Looking at that picture the question that comes to mind immediately is what CAN'T Wolfram Language do?

III. Steps on the Path to an Artificially-Intelligent Global Cloud

Surely it will have its flaws and its shortcomings, but Mr. Wolfram is clearly giving the world access to an incredibly powerful, intuitive, and efficient tool.  The question becomes, when can we test this and see if it's as good as it sounds?

The answer isn't clear.

Mr. Wolfram in his blog discusses a series of upcoming cloud services:
  • Wolfram Programming Cloud
    • Creates powerful programs for math, data analysis, and visualization
    • Can be hosted on private clouds via Function Call Interface
  • Programming Playground
    • Free environment to learn the basics of Wolfram Language
    • Supports some, but not all Wolfram Language APIs
    • Interfaces with the Programming Cloud
  • Wolfram Data Science Platform
    • Analyzes raw data for science
  • Wolfram Publishing Platform
    • Supports publishing on CloudCDF
    • Supports natural language scripting
    • Supports mobile devices via Wolfram Cloud App
  • MathematicaOnline

However, for the most part none of these services are currently fully available, even in beta form.  That said, Mr. Wolfram has consistently delivered on his past promises, even if it took a while.  So for now we'll have to be patient and wait for this big thing.

Wolfram iPad
Wolfram's cloud services can deploy data, scripts, and programs to mobile devices.

A final note -- returning to the possibility of artificial intelligence via a language based on both fundamental math and natural language, Mr. Wolfram says something particularly interesting, stating:

A Wolfram Language [program] can immediately [in fully automated fashion] describe its own [functionality]. Whether it’s creating an instant API, or putting up an interactive web page, or creating a mobile app, or collecting data from a network of embedded programs.

If we're forming a kind of global brain with all our interconnected computers and devices, then the Wolfram Language is the natural language for it. Symbolically representing both the world and what can be created computationally. And, conveniently enough, being efficient and understandable for both computers and humans.

So far I can see only the early stages of what this will lead to. But already I can tell that what’s happening is our most important technology project yet.

Braniac
As we creep towards artificial intelligence, will it be our self-aware ally or will it become a destructive enemy to mankind? [Image Source: DC Comics]

I agree with Mr. Wolfram's final comment -- who knows where this will all lead.  But if you can read those words without a tingle running down your spine, you're no futurist.

Sources: Stephen Wolfram, Wolfram Research Comp.





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