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Virtual Knowledge Spaces Are Putting Users in the Driver’s Seat Like Never Before

Nov 01, 2010

Conrad Wolfram Galileo's Experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Library Connect interviews Conrad Wolfram, Director of Strategic & International Development, Wolfram Research, Oxford, UK. The Wolfram Demonstrations Project is an instructional applet website with more than 5,000 knowledge spaces.

Library Connect: What was the genesis of the Demonstrations Project?
Conrad Wolfram: At Wolfram Research, we’ve spent 20 years automating the method of how a calculation gets done, so users are freed to focus on the task they’re trying to achieve. Within our Mathematica program, there is now a process for automating the construction of an application around your calculation so that you don’t need to be an expert in programming to be able to share your ideas via an app. We also created a space online where they can share these apps, or demonstrations as we like to call them. There are more than 5,000 demonstrations now that any user can view by downloading the free player.

What kinds of demonstrations are currently posted?
They cross most fields that in any way might use computation. There are ones you expect, like mathematics, and then there are other topics like physical and life sciences, economics, engineering and creative arts.

What is the benefit of using a demonstration?
From the user’s perspective, I think you understand more about a subject if you can drive. Taking control of the route through which you explore an idea and the questions you ask of a model is a very powerful methodology in learning. Authors set up workspaces for their readers, and readers will interact with those workspaces in ways that authors may not have envisaged. The greater bandwidth of communication means you can pack more information in a compelling form into a smaller space.

How easy is it to create a demonstration?
Years ago it was quite hard to produce charts; then spreadsheets came along, and everyone could do it. That’s where we want to go with interactive applications. We’ve made a pretty good start, and people who are ahead of the curve can do it easily now. With the technology coming up, we’ll be at the stage where pretty much everyone can do it through linguistic programming.

We’ve started down that road with our knowledge engine, Wolfram|Alpha. You type in a question, it tries to understand what you’re asking, and then it produces a result. Behind the scenes, it’s analyzing your input and building a document, which it then turns into HTML and puts back up on the Web. That’s pretty close to a process where you type in language, human language, and you end up with an application built.

How do knowledge engines change the role of a technical librarian?
Does the fact that we’ve encoded expertise in many fields mean that experts are redundant? My answer is no, quite the opposite. By encoding their expertise, they can have it much more used, making their role more important. Likewise, the skills that librarians have are extremely important in this new world; they’re just slightly differently deployed, informing the systems that are built. I think in the end one of the big problems in the modern world is that there’s too much data out there. The way around that is to have computers sift it appropriately, and to do that, the information has to be in a usable form. That’s a dead-center librarian kind of problem. The person in charge of all the curation and set up of Wolfram|Alpha is a librarian.

What are you predicting for the future of static content, such as traditional textbooks and journals?
Regarding more technical subjects, they have to evolve. I was at the Royal Society in London, where the first scientific journal was published some 350 years ago in Newton’s time. The content of journals hasn’t changed much since then. There were all kinds of constraints then about how difficult it was to publish, and interactivity was impossible, but those limitations just aren’t there anymore. Why are we still accepting this dead output?

Publishers come from a world of documents, while software developers come from a world of apps. At Wolfram Research, we believe they are two sides of the same coin. What we’ve been doing over the years, and we’ll continue to do, is to put those two together.

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