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!

Weekly Twitter Roundup (Jan. 12, 2017)

January 12, 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

NSF Seeks Input on Cyberinfrastructure Advances Needed

January 12, 2017

In cased you missed it, the National Science Foundation posted a “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL) late last week seeking input on needs for the next generation of cyberinfrastructure to support science and engineering. Read more…

By John Russell

NSF Approves Bridges Phase 2 Upgrade for Broader Research Use

January 12, 2017

The recently completed phase 2 upgrade of the Bridges supercomputer at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) has been approved by the National Science Foundation (NSF) making it now available for research allocations to the national scientific community, according to an announcement posted this week on the XSEDE web site. Read more…

By John Russell

Clemson Software Optimizes Big Data Transfers

January 11, 2017

Data-intensive science is not a new phenomenon as the high-energy physics and astrophysics communities can certainly attest, but today more and more scientists are facing steep data and throughput challenges fueled by soaring data volumes and the demands of global-scale collaboration. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Remote Visualization: An Integral Technology for Upstream Oil & Gas

As the exploration and production (E&P) of natural resources evolves into an even more complex and vital task, visualization technology has become integral for the upstream oil and gas industry. Read more…

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

UberCloud Cites Progress in HPC Cloud Computing

January 10, 2017

200 HPC cloud experiments, 80 case studies, and a ton of hands-on experience gained, that’s the harvest of four years of UberCloud HPC Experiments. Read more…

By Wolfgang Gentzsch and Burak Yenier

A Conversation with Women in HPC Director Toni Collis

January 6, 2017

In this SC16 video interview, HPCwire Managing Editor Tiffany Trader sits down with Toni Collis, the director and founder of the Women in HPC (WHPC) network, to discuss the strides made since the organization’s debut in 2014. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

FPGA-Based Genome Processor Bundles Storage

January 6, 2017

Bio-processor developer Edico Genome is collaborating with storage specialist Dell EMC to bundle computing and storage for analyzing gene-sequencing data. Read more…

By George Leopold

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

UberCloud Cites Progress in HPC Cloud Computing

January 10, 2017

200 HPC cloud experiments, 80 case studies, and a ton of hands-on experience gained, that’s the harvest of four years of UberCloud HPC Experiments. Read more…

By Wolfgang Gentzsch and Burak Yenier

A Conversation with Women in HPC Director Toni Collis

January 6, 2017

In this SC16 video interview, HPCwire Managing Editor Tiffany Trader sits down with Toni Collis, the director and founder of the Women in HPC (WHPC) network, to discuss the strides made since the organization’s debut in 2014. 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

Fast Rewind: 2016 Was a Wild Ride for HPC

December 23, 2016

Some years quietly sneak by – 2016 not so much. It’s safe to say there are always forces reshaping the HPC landscape but this year’s bunch seemed like a noisy lot. Among the noisemakers: TaihuLight, DGX-1/Pascal, Dell EMC & HPE-SGI et al., KNL to market, OPA-IB chest thumping, Fujitsu-ARM, new U.S. President-elect, BREXIT, JR’s Intel Exit, Exascale (whatever that means now), NCSA@30, whither NSCI, Deep Learning mania, HPC identity crisis…You get the picture. Read more…

By John Russell

AWI Uses New Cray Cluster for Earth Sciences and Bioinformatics

December 22, 2016

The Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), headquartered in Bremerhaven, Germany, is one of the country's premier research institutes within the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, and is an internationally respected center of expertise for polar and marine research. In November 2015, AWI awarded Cray a contract to install a cluster supercomputer that would help the institute accelerate time to discovery. Now the effort is starting to pay off. Read more…

By Linda Barney

Addison Snell: The ‘Wild West’ of HPC Disaggregation

December 16, 2016

We caught up with Addison Snell, CEO of HPC industry watcher Intersect360, at SC16 last month, and Snell had his expected, extensive list of insights into trends driving advanced-scale technology in both the commercial and research sectors. Read more…

By Doug Black

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

AWS Beats Azure to K80 General Availability

September 30, 2016

Amazon Web Services has seeded its cloud with Nvidia Tesla K80 GPUs to meet the growing demand for accelerated computing across an increasingly-diverse range of workloads. The P2 instance family is a welcome addition for compute- and data-focused users who were growing frustrated with the performance limitations of Amazon's G2 instances, which are backed by three-year-old Nvidia GRID K520 graphics cards. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

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

Vectors: How the Old Became New Again in Supercomputing

September 26, 2016

Vector instructions, once a powerful performance innovation of supercomputing in the 1970s and 1980s became an obsolete technology in the 1990s. But like the mythical phoenix bird, vector instructions have arisen from the ashes. Here is the history of a technology that went from new to old then back to new. Read more…

By Lynd Stringer

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 EMC Engineers Strategy to Democratize HPC

September 29, 2016

The freshly minted Dell EMC division of Dell Technologies is on a mission to take HPC mainstream with a strategy that hinges on engineered solutions, beginning with a focus on three industry verticals: manufacturing, research and life sciences. "Unlike traditional HPC where everybody bought parts, assembled parts and ran the workloads and did iterative engineering, we want folks to focus on time to innovation and let us worry about the infrastructure," said Jim Ganthier, senior vice president, validated solutions organization at Dell EMC Converged Platforms Solution Division. 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

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

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

Leading Solution Providers

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

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

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

New Genomics Pipeline Combines AWS, Local HPC, and Supercomputing

September 22, 2016

Declining DNA sequencing costs and the rush to do whole genome sequencing (WGS) of large cohort populations – think 5000 subjects now, but many more thousands soon – presents a formidable computational challenge to researchers attempting to make sense of large cohort datasets. Read more…

By John Russell

Beyond von Neumann, Neuromorphic Computing Steadily Advances

March 21, 2016

Neuromorphic computing – brain inspired computing – has long been a tantalizing goal. The human brain does with around 20 watts what supercomputers do with megawatts. And power consumption isn’t the only difference. Fundamentally, brains ‘think differently’ than the von Neumann architecture-based computers. While neuromorphic computing progress has been intriguing, it has still not proven very practical. Read more…

By John Russell

Deep Learning Paves Way for Better Diagnostics

September 19, 2016

Stanford researchers are leveraging GPU-based machines in the Amazon EC2 cloud to run deep learning workloads with the goal of improving diagnostics for a chronic eye disease, called diabetic retinopathy. The disease is a complication of diabetes that can lead to blindness if blood sugar is poorly controlled. It affects about 45 percent of diabetics and 100 million people worldwide, many in developing nations. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

The Exascale Computing Project Awards $39.8M to 22 Projects

September 7, 2016

The Department of Energy’s Exascale Computing Project (ECP) hit an important milestone today with the announcement of its first round of funding, moving the nation closer to its goal of reaching capable exascale computing by 2023. 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

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