This starts with a Facebook post that's been making the rounds, the one about Stephen Wolfram's new work with a catchy headline that may or may not describe what Wolfram is talking about: "Sentient code: An inside look at Stephen Wolfram’s utterly new, insanely ambitious computational paradigm."
I've read the article three times, discussed it with a computer scientist, and am still not clear on exactly what Wolfram is proposing, though we all run into the problem he's trying to solve (not specifically, i.e. I don't really need to know where the International Space Station is right now but...):
Wolfram wants to make the world computable, so that our computers can answer questions like “where is the International Space Station right now.” That requires a level of machine intelligence that knows what the ISS is, that it’s in space, that it is orbiting the Earth, what its speed is, and where in its orbit it is right now.
I do want to find real answers to my search questions and if Wolfram's on the path, let's go.
Last night, I noticed a rather long stream of thoughtful comments about the Wolfram piece, replying to my friend Doug Lea's Facebook query, "To ask David Letterman's question, "Is this something, or is it nothing?". People weighed in with serious commentary, one seemingly knowledgeable person after another, speculating/rendering opinions about whether what Wolfram is proposing makes sense. (My local computer scientist, by the way, tells me it does.)
In addition to the actual comments, what stood out to me was that thoughtful conversation was actually transpiring, a refreshing break from the bitter political acrimony that has caused friends to actually quit Facebook from time to time and the well-meaning attaboy/girls that I, for one, am guilty of participating in constantly on Facebook (Yay, you! How beautiful/sweet/cute!). One daughter of mine calls it Bragbook for good reason.
So I posted a comment to that effect on Doug's page, remarking that the discussion reminded me of the early days on EIES, back when there were only a few hundred thousand/million people online around the world anyway and when we still had no idea that we could order leggings after our discussions on whether computers would someday be in everyone's "electronic cottages."
And, I said something about Wolfram's new work, noting that he never used the word "network" in the article, which I mentioned to the local computer scientist who explained that while he may not have used the word explicitly, he believed that if asked Wolfram would agree that there were network properties inherent in his work.
This caused Doug to ask me to take a look at this talk by Dr. Nicholas Christakis at a recent Edge conference. OK. Once again, I'm out of it. Apparently, Edge has been going on for 15 years, thanks to John Brockman, whose name I know from the olden days of publishing, i.e. Brockman's agency put a lot of popular scientists/good writers on the map, and he himself has written some interesting books. Christakis's topic at HeadCon 13, "The Science of Social Connections," is definitely worth the 30 minutes (not 3, 30) if you're at all interested in networks.
I am. I've been working on networks since 1979, writing about them, developing ideas for nearly all that time with Jeff Stamps, who first alerted me to Christakis's work. Shortly thereafter, Jeff and I were invited to speak at the International Conference on Complex Systems, where Christakis also was speaking and which I touched on in this post.
In Christakis's Edge talk (the videography is gorgeous), he sweeps the field, dropping ah-has by the minute, including his near-opener, that links--the connections among us--are as important, no, he says more important, than the nodes--the people. Zinger. I wish the whole talk had been about this but then again everything in it is so interesting that I'll give a pass. He notes that the network structures of pre-agricultural-age people (there's still a little tribe of them numbering 1000 who sleep under the stars and aren't on Facebook--yet), are identical to ours; that contagion spreads differently depending on network structure; and that other species have similar networks. Lots of stuff. Love it.
Where I see another "edge" is taking all the deep work and popular fascination with social networks and merging it with organizational networks, the structures that we work in, go to school in, vote in, yes, the same ones that make us want to throw shoes at the screen. How are our organizational structures influenced by the findings of social networks and how can we use those findings to create more humane/human organizations? Org charts have looked the same since the days of the railroads and the industrial-era behemoths that were erected to manage them. We've learned so so much. It's time to integrate the worlds. Dr. Christakis?
PS to The Edge crowd: The Monty Python-esque guy carrying around the bike wheel who appears from time to time in Christakis's video? Schtick? Send the guy the rest of the bike?