Stephen Wolfram on Singularity 1 on 1: To Understand the Future, Explore the Computational Universe

by Socrates on January 27, 2011

Yesterday I was privileged to have an hour long phone interview with Dr. Stephen Wolfram for my Singularity 1 on 1 podcast.

We started our conversation on how Stephen got interested in exploring science in general and eventually focused on computation in particular. Then we moved on to a number of other interesting topics such as his work on Mathematica, his monumental book A New Kind of Science, his unique computational search engine Wolfram|Alpha, artificial intelligence and the technological singularity.

I have to say that after spending 2 or 3 days in intense preparation for the interview I already knew that Dr. Wolfram is an exceptionally intelligent person. However, after our conversation and especially after taking into consideration Wolfram’s breadth and depth of work, and the profound actual and potential implications thereof, it seems to me that he may be considered to be arguably among the smartest people alive. Anyway, this is my own impression but I’ll let you be the judge yourself. So go ahead, listen to or download the audio above and don’t hesitate to let me know what you think…

Who is Stephen Wolfram?

Dr. Wolfram was born in London and educated in Eton, Oxford and Caltech, where at the age of 20 he was the youngest Ph.D. graduate in theoretical physics. He is a distinguished scientist, inventor, author, and entrepreneur. Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica, the author of A New Kind of Science, the creator of Wolfram|Alpha, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research.

Print Friendly
  • Tweets that mention Stephen Wolfram on Singularity 1 on 1: To Understand the Future, Explore the Computational Universe —

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ESpiritE - Radio7, Nikola Danaylov. Nikola Danaylov said: Stephen Wolfram on Singularity 1 on 1: To Understand the Future, Explore the Computational Universe - [...]

  • CMStewart

    Another mind-expanding interview! Wolfram’s description of the computational equivalence between a rock and a person helped solidify and validate some weird ideas of my own. lol

    I hadn’t thought of mathematics as being historically driven until now. (I’m not really a math person.) I suspect most people don’t view mathematics as historically driven. The “computational universe” of mathematics will open up for us when we break out of our human-centric universal view. The trick is moving away from “human purpose-driven” thinking to “what is possible-purpose” thinking and beyond. Tricky to do with a human brain.

  • Accelerating Future » Singularity Weblog Audio Interview with Stephen Wolfram

    [...] it is. Congrats to Nikola for getting the interview. I was fortunate enough to have a one-on-one [...]

  • Nikki_Olson

    This is an excellent interview!

    Some great quotes;

    “I think the big challenge for the future is not what’s possible, but what do you chose to do”

    “There will come a time where our thinking-like processes are well encapsulated in digital form. There will be things we can do there with Wolfram Alpha or whatever else that are just be vastly more complicated than anything we humans have been able to do…The real question is ‘if we can do anything, what do we chose to do”

    “All these programs out there in the computational universe, they may be nice and fun and make nice pictures and so on but what are they for? What purpose do they serve? This is where we kind of get into something where an important problem is understanding purposes, understanding human purposes, understanding the evolution of human purpose”


    (in addressing whether he is an optimist or a pessimist)

    “It all relates to purpose. We’ll be able to do almost everything. And then you know, that means that many purposes can be achieved. This question of optimism and pessimism is kind of a derivative of purpose. Its hard to be optimistic or pessimistic if you don’t know what the purpose is”

    His views on purpose are somewhat unique in the tradition of western existentialism. Traditional western existentialism acknowledges that purpose can be ‘relative’ (Sartre; “I am myself, I make myself”), but maintains that we have objective, ‘fixed’ purposes, things that do not change, that are part of ‘being human’ (to survive, to evolve, will to power).

    Wolfram points out in this interview that objective purposes are (at least somewhat) relative as well. It seems to me that he is arguing that it is not just that we think of it differently at different points of time, but that it actually is different at different points in time.

    This is exciting.

    Because the rate at which things change is something that accelerates, and will become rapid in its pace in the next 30-40 years, if we follow Wolfram’s view regarding purpose, our shared purpose could be something radically different from what its ever been in a relatively short period of time. Truly ‘post-human’ in the existential sense in the near future.

    How he factors this view of purpose into his beliefs about the future is interesting and unique. That optimism and pessimism are dependent to some extent on what you define your purpose as is a valuable insight. However, as you pointed out Socrates, its pretty obvious that failure to survive is always an outcome that is ‘pessimistic’, no matter what you define as your purpose. Its great to hear that such an intelligent and highly respected person is so confident that we will survive.

    Thanks Socrates, great interview! I will be listening to it many times!

  • Socrates

    Wow Nikki,

    I love that you liked the interview so much that you will be listening to it many times.

    I myself have been doing the same i.e. I have already listened to it at least 4 times and still find new things that I failed to notice or pay attention to during the previous times. Stephen Wolfram’s interview is indeed rather dense and profoundly deep in so many ways (just like his work) that it is really a minefield of golden nuggets…

    I also really appreciate you taking the time and putting the effort of writing down the above quotes - Indeed, those deserve to be written down for it enhances the effect, communicates the message and improves the understanding in so many ways.

    It is the presence and participation of readers like you that make worthwhile!

    Thank you!

  • Nikki_Olson

    Thanks Socrates!

    I just listened to it again and wanted to correct myself.

    I realize that I was incorrect in my discussion on how you respond to his answer regarding optimism/pessimism. I said;

    “However, as you pointed out Socrates, its pretty obvious that failure to survive is always an outcome that is ‘pessimistic’, no matter what you define as your purpose”

    But I realize now on second listening that you were more specific, saying instead that if one took a Darwinian point of view on human purpose that ‘failure to survive’ would (then) be interpreted as pessimistic.

    Another great quote I found in the second listening;

    “But we can also look at a rock, which also (like humans) has all these processes going on, all these electrons whizzing around, and this principle of computational equivalence tells us that there is nothing less sophisticated probably about that which happens in all kinds of rocks, then there is in this funny creation that’s been created by this ultimate future projection of human technology. And so then we’d say ‘well then what’s special about the future of human technology as opposed to the one that’s just the rock?’ And the answer is not something that we’ll be able to abstractly say. We won’t be able to say ‘oh look’, ‘there’s an emotion running around there’, or, ‘oh look’, ‘there’s some kind of general intelligence factor there’. There will be no such distinction. The distinction will be something about history. The distinction will be the thing that encapsulates the particulars, that it’s not a question of the general computation that we’re achieving. It’s a question of the particulars of human history and so on that we have that will be the thing that’s special about what it is that sort of is that is the successor of us in the future.”

  • Nathan

    Incredible interview, Socrates!

  • Nikki_Olson

    Stephen Wolfram talks in this interview about how ‘purpose’ is found by looking back, by looking to history. How historical particulars play a special role in answering questions about a given thing’s purpose is, about what makes something special. He remarks about a time when ‘when anything is possible’, and how when this is the case, the real question of what to do will hinge on defining purpose. That the importance of questions regarding purpose in some ways positively correlate with ‘choice’, with ‘how many things there are to chose from’, so that as we approach the Singularity, and technology creates more and more options, questions regarding purpose become more and more important.

    What happens when you take this insight and juxtapose it with the belief that we are the evolutionary predecessors to AI in the ‘evolution of intelligence’?

    In some senses at least, humans will represent ‘the roots’ of AIs. We will be their Neaderthals in a way.

    One frequently asked question in the AI community is whether or not future advanced AIs will want to keep humans around. Some argue there is no reason they would want to since we would be far inferior to them. Others argue that they will be interested in us like humans are interested in those they conquer.

    Given Wolfram’s insight regarding purpose, I think it is reasonable to predict that AIs will be interested in us for the sake of figuring out their ‘purpose’. How long that interest will be sustained is another question.

    Given the nature of these advanced AIs, this could be only milliseconds. But I think envisioning future AIs as the next evolutionary step is an interesting framework from which to answer speculative questions regarding the behavior of advanced AI.

Previous post:

Next post: