Stephen Wolfram: creator of much-discussed new web tool
By James Dacey
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the mathematician, philosopher and infamous black swan of 20th century academia, argued that words – in themselves – are meaningless. Words, according to Wittgenstein, only pick up significance from their use in “language games” – the rules of which are governed by culture.
Fast-forward to 2009 and the way language is used is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Undoubtedly, one of the key drivers of this change is the Internet, which has brought about a revolution in the way knowledge is stored and communicated.
Now, British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram – of Mathematica fame – is about to alter the way knowledge is shared even further. He has created the world’s first “web-based question answering system”, which he says will remove the “linguistic fluff” of other search engines and “make expert knowledge accessible to anyone, anywhere, any time”.
Basically, it will enable you to instantly attain facts using an economy of words. For example, type: “proton mass” and immediately receive your answer in MeV and kg.
Wolfram Alpha will launch this month and, according to a BBC news report, some industry experts are saying it will become as important as Google.
In other news yesterday, the UK Government announced large reforms to the education system that will drag the internet right into the heart of schooling. One of the implications is that web tools, like Wolfram Alpha, could start to replace dusty old text books in the classroom – from physics to history classes.
Already, the proposals have sparked some criticism. Writing in The Times today, John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of Modern English at UCL, argues that the increasing use of computers in the curriculum is leading to a lexical poverty amongst students.
“Many skills have been enhanced by the computer but vocabulary, I suspect has been shrunk, rigidified and deadened,” he writes.
So what are we to make of all this – is the internet squeezing out creativity from education?
It seems quite reasonable for Sutherland to warn against losing the creativity that the ebb and flow of language can inspire in students.
However, whilst the English professor’s sentiment is important, it’s all a bit predictable from someone in his position.
Of course, the other side of the argument is that by removing the “dust and fluff” of stayed educational materials, we can free up pupils to develop a creative, varied approach to learning that will prepare them well for the 21st century workplace.
As always, I’m sure the solution will be a compromise between the two positions.
One thing has become crystal clear though. Like it or not Internet culture is moving ever deeper into the heart of education and tools, like Wolfram Alpha, will start to take a more active role in the language games that take place there.