Xconomist of the Week: Stephen Wolfram on Big Ideas & Companies

12/8/11Follow @gthuang

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even though other people have tried and failed, and lots of people tell them it’s impossible, that one can nevertheless actually do it. And then being able to lead other people to throw themselves into it too.”

It remains to be seen how well Wolfram Alpha will ultimately perform, but it’s been quite a ride already. The project has advanced far beyond the experimental stage: Apple’s latest iPhone uses the technology in its virtual assistant, Siri. “It’s always a strange thing,” Wolfram said, “starting with just an idea, gradually turning it into something real, and inventing along the way all those things that start small and eventually become huge structures that everybody assumes were always there. I always think that anyone who’s been involved in such a thing has a kind of glow of confidence that lasts about a decade or so—realizing that, yes, with the right effort, nothing can turn into something.”

But let’s come back to Earth here. There was a pretty strong overcurrent of do-it-yourself, anti-VC sentiment in Wolfram’s company-building comments. (To be fair, some of his best friends are probably VCs.) Is any of that applicable or realistic for most tech entrepreneurs these days?

“Our company is pretty different from a lot of the industry,” Wolfram said. “Our goals are a bit different about building these giant things that are interesting, independent of the difficulty of doing it.” Plus, Wolfram Research has been around for 20-plus years and is still privately held. “That’s an unusual thing in the technology business. Usually people get venture capital, there’s a certain cycle of things happening, it either gets very big or it blows up, or it gets bought by somebody,” he said. “For Wolfram Alpha, I can imagine some venture capital-type pitches for that project—and I can’t imagine they would have ended very well.”

Another insight, which is more applicable to medium-size and larger companies, had to do with hard-wiring innovation into the corporate culture. Wolfram has a theory about “the rhythm of innovation,” he said. “The notion is, we’re always going to be doing something qualitatively different every couple of years, and just get used to that. There will always be a new thing happening, and there will always be people who will be pulled into that new thing.” He added, “So I get to do the scary thing to folks at the company, which is with great regularity saying, ‘I have a new idea. Let’s see who can work on it.’”

Overall, Wolfram seems very optimistic about the progress of technology. Given the current state of the industry (and his own role in it), he said, “We have sort of a Cambrian explosion moment. I’m certainly having more fun and feeling more productive than at any time I’ve been involved in the technology industry.”

One of the questions from the audience had to do with Wolfram’s philosophy on what can be predicted about the world. “When it comes to what happens in society, there’s sort of a mixture of things you can compute and things that are irreducibly hard to compute,” he said. “Basically the only way you can work out what’s going to happen [in the latter case] is to directly simulate them, or to just watch what they do.”

Perhaps an example of that comes from Wolfram’s home life. “I’m always trying to figure out where things are going, and I make these predictions about what will happen,” he said. “My wife is always reminding me of the following story of what I’d said in the early ‘90s. We had been building a house. OK, how do we put a television in this room? I said, ‘Well, you just make this little niche in the wall, 4 inches thick, that will be fine for a television.’ And, well, of course, there were eventually flat screen televisions, but it wasn’t in the early ‘90s.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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