Thinking Forward: A Conversation with Wolfram Research Co-Founder Theo Gray

By Nicole Hemsoth

December 20, 2011

In 1987, Theodore (Theo) Gray, along with Stephen Wolfram, co-founded Wolfram Research and created its flagship product, Mathematica. Gray developed the concept of Mathematica notebook, which provides the main interface to the tool. Today, as the Director of User Interface Technology, he continues to guide the user interface strategy for Wolfram Research.

Besides his day job, Gray is also an award-winning science writer, a role he uses to communicate his unbounded enthusiasm for science, technology, the arts, and how they interact. Recently he founded Touch Press, an electronic book publishing company that Gray hopes will further that cause. In this wide-ranging interview, Gray talks about his new Touch Press venture, Wolfram|Alpha, science education, software, cloud computing, and HPC.

HPCwire: Theo, you recently founded a new company called Touch Press. What are your goals with this venture?

Gray: Touch Press is a publishing company that specializes in top-quality, highly interactive electronic books. We aim to surprise and delight people as they discover interests they never knew they had, through outstanding writing, outstanding visuals, and outstanding interactivity.

Out main goal is to invent and discover what books should be in the new world of electronic reading. We have a strong belief that “book” is as relevant a concept now as it ever has been. Even though you now have to talk about acoustic guitars and electric guitars, there is still a clear concept of what is or is not a guitar, and likewise “books” will always maintain a distinct identity as a calm place where an author can communicate a self-contained message to an interested reader.

HPCwire: One of the strengths of ‘The Elements’ app is its strong visual design. Aesthetics appears to be highly valued in your approach to application development. How important is design for Touch Press?

Gray: Visual design is important for some titles, less so for others where text or interactivity are the most important factors. The Elements is a coffee table photo book, so a strong aesthetic is key, along with beautiful photographs and engaging text. The Waste Land, our book about the iconic T.S. Eliot poem, relies less on visual design and more on clever and effective interactivity to bring the poem to life. But even there, good typography is important to make the reading experience pleasing, and good filmmaking is key to making Fiona Shaw’s filmed performance engaging.

HPCwire: In many ways, Touch Press brings art and science together. Is this an important goal for you?

Gray: Science is inherently beautiful, because science is about truth. And we like beautiful things. But science is not the only source of beauty in the world, and our titles do and will include poetry, fiction, music, theater, and the whole range of human expression, not just non-fiction science titles.

What we do insist be part of all of our titles is an appreciation for learning and discovery. We want people to be delighted with what they find, and delighted in themselves for finding it. Interactivity allows for a more engaging, wider ranging exploration of a topic than print allows, meaning that a wider range of people can find something to enjoy in a given topic.

HPCwire: What role does creativity play in collaborating across the various disciplines — coding, engineering, design, pedagogy — that come together in designing and producing rich applications?

Gray: A key strength of Touch Press is that we come from a combination of backgrounds including publishing, writing, television production, and software development. We strongly believe in the value of creativity in all areas of endeavor, including writing, visual production, and programming. Many traditional companies seem to fall down in one or another of these areas: Print publishing companies clearly understand that they need great authors, but often seem to think that programmers are hired grunts not deserving of much respect. Video game companies understand that programmers are the stars that make their products shine, but don’t seem to be able to put together two minutes of video that anyone wants to watch.

At Touch Press our goal is to combine the best of all these worlds to create great narratives, written by real writers, accompanied by great photography and video, held together and brought to life by top-notch user interface designers and developers who can make the hardware sing.

HPCwire: Clearly cloud computing has become the frame of reference for talking about software today. Has cloud computing changed your initial trajectory for developing applications for either Wolfram or Touch Press?

Gray: Wolfram’s apps are completely based on cloud computing: All the hard work is done on the server side by Wolfram|Alpha, because it would be completely out of the question to do that much work on an iPhone (let alone store the vast amounts of data and real-time feeds that Wolfram|Alpha has access to when formulating its answers).

This is one reason why Wolfram|Alpha was such a natural fit for Apple’s new Siri service, which uses cloud servers to answer questions from a wide range of subject areas. Even when asked to do a local task like add a reminder, Siri uses cloud computing to analyze the query, and if the conclusion is that it’s something Wolfram|Alpha can answer, our cloud is right there to supply the result.

Touch Press’ products use the cloud through their inclusion of Wolfram|Alpha results, but this is a more limited use, and generally speaking we try to keep as much content as possible on the device, in order to deliver a seamless, fluid experience.

HPCwire: How do you envision expanding the capacities of electronic books using technologies like Wolfram|Alpha in the decades to come? Could you imagine, for example, using data mining to build relevant data and/or support services across the books?

Gray: Books about factual subjects, which is to say books that refer to things in the real world, should, as much as possible, contain not copies of data but references to it, references that point to something in the cloud that can be kept up to date. Since it’s often not economical to maintain a special database just for a book that may have been published years ago, services like Wolfram|Alpha provide a convenient central repository that can provide updated, authoritative data for a wide range of books.

HPCwire: The multimedia nature of electronic books lends itself to extreme, storage, computation and analytical issues. What are some of the design challenges in the continued evolution of electronic books?

Gray: File size is definitely an issue for media-rich products, and providing a smooth, seamless user experience requires that as much of the media as possible be stored locally. Where that’s not possible, robust network and cloud storage can be the next best thing. And because devices often have limited local computational power, cloud computation can be even more important. A perfect example is Siri, just introduced by Apple, which does excellent voice recognition because it doesn’t try to do it on the device, but rather sends a compressed waveform to servers that are better able to handle this task.

HPCwire: Wolfram Research is particularly focused on the convergence of software innovation and science. How do you see high performance computing impacting science in the decades to come?

Gray: High performance computing is an instrument, like a microscope, and all instruments increase the range of what you can see and study. Large-scale numerical simulations are like very specialized measuring instruments, but potentially even more interesting are knowledge-processing systems that expand and magnify the power of human imagination.

A flexible, symbolic, linguistic computational tool allows scientists to explore spaces of possible solutions in ways not possible before. As usual, the more natural and “simple” the interface to computation, the harder the machine has to work behind the scenes to make it appear easy. Our goal is to allow people to ask questions of computers in simple ways, even if the answers require vast amounts of computation to determine.

HPCwire: This sounds fascinating. How might advanced computing change the way we deal with questions and challenges around big data and complexity?

Gray: The simplest example, and one that’s been around for a long time, is of course data visualization. A huge table of numbers is incomprehensible, but a graph, possibly of a highly processed form of the data, may show some obvious feature that makes a conclusion all but inevitable. But not all data is numerical or plotable, which is where symbolic analysis comes in. For example, an analysis of the network of references in Supreme Court opinions can reveal interesting insights into which Justices were the most influential in which areas of law, insights that are not at all obvious from simply reading all the opinions.

HPCwire: We know that digital technologies are having a huge impact on the hard sciences. Do you see technology having a unique impact on the humanities and social sciences?

Gray: Technology has arguably had as much or more influence on the arts than it has on science. Music and performance used to be ephemeral, now they have become defined by the existence of recording technology, and every advance in how such material is delivered changes the relationship of the artist to their audience.

The creation of a genuinely new medium is a rare thing. Paper, audio and video recordings, photography, radio, movies, television, computers, internet, and tablets. I think that tablets belong on this list not so much because of their present form, but as a representative of the future of people’s relationship with computing devices, one in which they are personal and intimate, something to lie in bed with, not to sit in front of.

This kind of relationship to computers is fundamentally more relevant to the arts and humanities than to hard science, and in fact one of the dangers to science is that as more and more people switch to more personal devices, the kinds of high-powered desktop systems used by scientists will become expensive exotics, rather than beefed up derivatives of mainstream devices.

HPCwire: You have been particularly influential in the development of advanced software applications for education. How do you see education changing as a result of innovations in technology?

Gray: Education is a hard nut to crack. At this point the most interesting applications of technology in education are happening outside schools. Kids have a completely different relationship to knowledge than we are used to. They take for granted that every possible bit of factual knowledge they might want is available instantly: Whole categories of argument and discussion don’t exist anymore because you can simply pull out your phone and get the answer. Many classes of computational problems simply aren’t problems anymore because the answer is at your fingertips using something like Wolfram|Alpha or Mathematica.

Schools are very slow to react to this kind of change, and it may be a generation before they catch up. In the meantime, a lot of actual education is happening outside the classroom environment, through home schooling, informal learning, online resources like Khan Academy, and other self-directed learning opportunities.

This is one of the reasons that Touch Press is not interested in publishing textbooks: We think that we can have more of an effect by publishing titles that people buy because they want to learn, not because someone is telling them they should. And while Wolfram|Alpha is a great learning resource in any context, it’s the kind of things kids are much more likely to discover on their own than through their teacher.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

ExxonMobil, NCSA, Cray Scale Reservoir Simulation to 700,000+ Processors

February 17, 2017

In a scaling breakthrough for oil and gas discovery, ExxonMobil geoscientists report they have harnessed the power of 717,000 processors – the equivalent of 22,000 32-processor computers – to run complex oil and gas reservoir simulation models. Read more…

By Doug Black

TSUBAME3.0 Points to Future HPE Pascal-NVLink-OPA Server

February 17, 2017

Since our initial coverage of the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer yesterday, more details have come to light on this innovative project. Of particular interest is a new board design for NVLink-equipped Pascal P100 GPUs that will create another entrant to the space currently occupied by Nvidia's DGX-1 system, IBM's "Minsky" platform and the Supermicro SuperServer (1028GQ-TXR). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tokyo Tech’s TSUBAME3.0 Will Be First HPE-SGI Super

February 16, 2017

In a press event Friday afternoon local time in Japan, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced its plans for the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer, which will be Japan’s “fastest AI supercomputer,” Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Drug Developers Use Google Cloud HPC in the Fight Against ALS

February 16, 2017

Within the haystack of a lethal disease such as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis / Lou Gehrig’s Disease) there exists, somewhere, the needle that will pierce this therapy-resistant affliction. Read more…

By Doug Black

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Object Storage is the Ideal Storage Method for CME Companies

The communications, media, and entertainment (CME) sector is experiencing a massive paradigm shift driven by rising data volumes and the demand for high-performance data analytics. Read more…

Weekly Twitter Roundup (Feb. 16, 2017)

February 16, 2017

Here at HPCwire, we aim to keep the HPC community apprised of the most relevant and interesting news items that get tweeted throughout the week. Read more…

By Thomas Ayres

Alexander Named Dep. Dir. of Brookhaven Computational Initiative

February 15, 2017

Francis Alexander, a physicist with extensive management and leadership experience in computational science research, has been named Deputy Director of the Computational Science Initiative at the U.S. Read more…

Here’s What a Neural Net Looks Like On the Inside

February 15, 2017

Ever wonder what the inside of a machine learning model looks like? Today Graphcore released fascinating images that show how the computational graph concept maps to a new graph processor and graph programming framework it’s creating. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

Azure Edges AWS in Linpack Benchmark Study

February 15, 2017

The “when will clouds be ready for HPC” question has ebbed and flowed for years. Read more…

By John Russell

TSUBAME3.0 Points to Future HPE Pascal-NVLink-OPA Server

February 17, 2017

Since our initial coverage of the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer yesterday, more details have come to light on this innovative project. Of particular interest is a new board design for NVLink-equipped Pascal P100 GPUs that will create another entrant to the space currently occupied by Nvidia's DGX-1 system, IBM's "Minsky" platform and the Supermicro SuperServer (1028GQ-TXR). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tokyo Tech’s TSUBAME3.0 Will Be First HPE-SGI Super

February 16, 2017

In a press event Friday afternoon local time in Japan, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced its plans for the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer, which will be Japan’s “fastest AI supercomputer,” Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Drug Developers Use Google Cloud HPC in the Fight Against ALS

February 16, 2017

Within the haystack of a lethal disease such as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis / Lou Gehrig’s Disease) there exists, somewhere, the needle that will pierce this therapy-resistant affliction. Read more…

By Doug Black

Azure Edges AWS in Linpack Benchmark Study

February 15, 2017

The “when will clouds be ready for HPC” question has ebbed and flowed for years. Read more…

By John Russell

Is Liquid Cooling Ready to Go Mainstream?

February 13, 2017

Lost in the frenzy of SC16 was a substantial rise in the number of vendors showing server oriented liquid cooling technologies. Three decades ago liquid cooling was pretty much the exclusive realm of the Cray-2 and IBM mainframe class products. That’s changing. We are now seeing an emergence of x86 class server products with exotic plumbing technology ranging from Direct-to-Chip to servers and storage completely immersed in a dielectric fluid. Read more…

By Steve Campbell

Cray Posts Best-Ever Quarter, Visibility Still Limited

February 10, 2017

On its Wednesday earnings call, Cray announced the largest revenue quarter in the company’s history and the second-highest revenue year. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Cloud Startup Launches ‘App Store’ for HPC Workflows

February 9, 2017

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them,” Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel and Trump Announce $7B for Fab 42 Targeting 7nm

February 8, 2017

In what may be an attempt by President Trump to reset his turbulent relationship with the high tech industry, he and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich today announced plans to invest more than $7 billion to complete Fab 42. Read more…

By John Russell

For IBM/OpenPOWER: Success in 2017 = (Volume) Sales

January 11, 2017

To a large degree IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation have done what they said they would – assembling a substantial and growing ecosystem and bringing Power-based products to market, all in about three years. Read more…

By John Russell

US, China Vie for Supercomputing Supremacy

November 14, 2016

The 48th edition of the TOP500 list is fresh off the presses and while there is no new number one system, as previously teased by China, there are a number of notable entrants from the US and around the world and significant trends to report on. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Lighting up Aurora: Behind the Scenes at the Creation of the DOE’s Upcoming 200 Petaflops Supercomputer

December 1, 2016

In April 2015, U.S. Department of Energy Undersecretary Franklin Orr announced that Intel would be the prime contractor for Aurora: Read more…

By Jan Rowell

D-Wave SC16 Update: What’s Bo Ewald Saying These Days

November 18, 2016

Tucked in a back section of the SC16 exhibit hall, quantum computing pioneer D-Wave has been talking up its new 2000-qubit processor announced in September. Forget for a moment the criticism sometimes aimed at D-Wave. This small Canadian company has sold several machines including, for example, ones to Lockheed and NASA, and has worked with Google on mapping machine learning problems to quantum computing. In July Los Alamos National Laboratory took possession of a 1000-quibit D-Wave 2X system that LANL ordered a year ago around the time of SC15. Read more…

By John Russell

Enlisting Deep Learning in the War on Cancer

December 7, 2016

Sometime in Q2 2017 the first ‘results’ of the Joint Design of Advanced Computing Solutions for Cancer (JDACS4C) will become publicly available according to Rick Stevens. He leads one of three JDACS4C pilot projects pressing deep learning (DL) into service in the War on Cancer. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Startup Advances Auto-Parallelization’s Promise

January 23, 2017

The shift from single core to multicore hardware has made finding parallelism in codes more important than ever, but that hasn’t made the task of parallel programming any easier. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Wants to be “Red Hat” of Deep Learning

January 26, 2017

IBM today announced the addition of TensorFlow and Chainer deep learning frameworks to its PowerAI suite of deep learning tools, which already includes popular offerings such as Caffe, Theano, and Torch. Read more…

By John Russell

CPU Benchmarking: Haswell Versus POWER8

June 2, 2015

With OpenPOWER activity ramping up and IBM’s prominent role in the upcoming DOE machines Summit and Sierra, it’s a good time to look at how the IBM POWER CPU stacks up against the x86 Xeon Haswell CPU from Intel. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Nvidia Sees Bright Future for AI Supercomputing

November 23, 2016

Graphics chipmaker Nvidia made a strong showing at SC16 in Salt Lake City last week. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

BioTeam’s Berman Charts 2017 HPC Trends in Life Sciences

January 4, 2017

Twenty years ago high performance computing was nearly absent from life sciences. Today it’s used throughout life sciences and biomedical research. Genomics and the data deluge from modern lab instruments are the main drivers, but so is the longer-term desire to perform predictive simulation in support of Precision Medicine (PM). There’s even a specialized life sciences supercomputer, ‘Anton’ from D.E. Shaw Research, and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is standing up its second Anton 2 and actively soliciting project proposals. There’s a lot going on. Read more…

By John Russell

Container App ‘Singularity’ Eases Scientific Computing

October 20, 2016

HPC container platform Singularity is just six months out from its 1.0 release but already is making inroads across the HPC research landscape. It's in use at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), where Singularity founder Gregory Kurtzer has worked in the High Performance Computing Services (HPCS) group for 16 years. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Dell Knights Landing Machine Sets New STAC Records

November 2, 2016

The Securities Technology Analysis Center, commonly known as STAC, has released a new report characterizing the performance of the Knight Landing-based Dell PowerEdge C6320p server on the STAC-A2 benchmarking suite, widely used by the financial services industry to test and evaluate computing platforms. The Dell machine has set new records for both the baseline Greeks benchmark and the large Greeks benchmark. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IDG to Be Bought by Chinese Investors; IDC to Spin Out HPC Group

January 19, 2017

US-based publishing and investment firm International Data Group, Inc. (IDG) will be acquired by a pair of Chinese investors, China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co., Ltd. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

What Knights Landing Is Not

June 18, 2016

As we get ready to launch the newest member of the Intel Xeon Phi family, code named Knights Landing, it is natural that there be some questions and potentially some confusion. Read more…

By James Reinders, Intel

KNUPATH Hermosa-based Commercial Boards Expected in Q1 2017

December 15, 2016

Last June tech start-up KnuEdge emerged from stealth mode to begin spreading the word about its new processor and fabric technology that’s been roughly a decade in the making. Read more…

By John Russell

Intel and Trump Announce $7B for Fab 42 Targeting 7nm

February 8, 2017

In what may be an attempt by President Trump to reset his turbulent relationship with the high tech industry, he and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich today announced plans to invest more than $7 billion to complete Fab 42. Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This