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December 20, 2011

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

Nicole Hemsoth

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.

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