Stephen Wolfram Talks Bing Partnership, Software Strategy, and the Future of Knowledge Computing

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There is something oddly human about Stephen Wolfram using his iPhone to look up the mass of the “cascade hyperon,” a subatomic particle with who-knows-what properties. That’s what Wolfram, one of the world’s most distinguished experts in physics and computing, was doing on the day we spoke a few weeks ago.

Maybe it stood out because it means that even Wolfram—whose depth of scientific knowledge seems to exist on a different plane from other humans—needs a smartphone these days. Or maybe it’s just funny that anyone would use an iPhone app to look up such a thing.

In any case, Wolfram, 50, is a renowned scientist, author, and business leader. Born in London, he resides in the Boston area, but his company, Wolfram Research, is global, with headquarters in Champaign, IL, and 600-some employees spread around the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Last May, he launched an ultra-ambitious project called Wolfram Alpha, a kind of “knowledge engine” that answers queries about everything from geography to statistics to finance by “computing” the answer from an extensive database. It’s different from a search engine, which returns a list of links and documents. But the two can work together: in November, Microsoft announced it had formed a partnership to incorporate Wolfram Alpha into some of Bing’s search results.

So it was high time I checked in with Wolfram, whose career I have followed over the years. Interestingly, he calls Wolfram Alpha “the most complicated project I’ve ever done.” That says quite a lot, given that Wolfram spent more than a decade writing A New Kind of Science, the 1,200-page tome he released in 2002 that potentially turns every field of science and technology on its head. He is also the creator of Mathematica, a software program used widely for scientific and technical computing (things like modeling, simulations, and visualizations)—it’s the main reason Wolfram’s company has been profitable since 1988.

We spoke by phone on a quiet December afternoon just before the holidays. I asked him about the technology and strategy behind Wolfram Alpha and the future of search engines and knowledge engines, as well as business lessons learned from building his company and running it remotely. (I also couldn’t resist asking for his take on the massive physics effort at the Large Hadron Collider, the Swiss-based particle accelerator that amounts to the biggest science experiment in history.)

If you’ve ever interviewed Wolfram, you know to choose your questions wisely. It’s not just that he doesn’t suffer fools, but that he answers every question so thoroughly that he will embark on tangents that turn out to be mind-blowing—much more interesting than the path of the original question. Which is a bit like the best queries in science, business, and Wolfram Alpha itself, come to think of it. (You should try the site here if you haven’t yet.)

Here are some edited and slightly condensed highlights from our conversation:

Xconomy: Tell me about the organizational structure of Wolfram Alpha. How big is the project?

Stephen Wolfram: Wolfram Alpha has about 200 people. The parent company is Wolfram Research, and headquarters are in Champaign. It’s quite a distributed operation at this point. There are pieces in Boston and the U.K. We have one or two people in Seattle. Our people are scattered literally all over the world. I set a bad example by being a remote CEO starting in 1991. For many kinds of things, it’s tremendously productive.

X: What are your tips for managing a company remotely?

SW: My theory is the most productive form of meeting is conference calls with Web conferencing. You can have more people in the meeting, and you’re not wasting anyone’s time. They can work on other things, and if you need them, you just say their name. I’ve found that it’s what I spend my life doing. The Wolfram Alpha project is the most complicated project I’ve ever done. It’s remarkable for what it … Next Page »

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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