Einstein of Design

Several years ago I was astounded upon reading the book ‘A New Kind of Science’ by Stephen Wolfram.  It provides a point of view I highly concur with, that the universe of complexity can be explained via computational models.  Essentially, in my terms, it points out how brilliant design (that is, at its core, quite simple!) can produce infinite variety.

The video above is a talk by Stephen at TED, in which he provides an update on some new capabilities he and his team have subsequently produced (like Wolfram Alpha and Wolfram Tunes), but more importantly, expounds on his belief/vision that computation can present the basis for understanding the fundamentals of the universe…indeed, modeling alternative universes as well.

I believe Mr. Wolfram is well on his way to being the next Einstein for several reasons, and they worth touching upon I think, because they are directly related to the theme of Excellence by Design.

  • Great Design can be simple, yet yield infinite variety.  This is a core theme of Stephen’s work, my own beliefs, this blog, and is a key characteristic of great designers.   It is interesting to me to see, in the universe of IT professionals and organizations, how some embrace this deeply and some do not.  It is a capability I watch for in peers and colleagues, and a capability that this blog tries to show how to enable for IT organizations especially.
  • Models may be simple, but Results are irreducible. This is a very interesting paradox and is something again, many people may have strong reactions against.  Stephen declares (and shows) how by enabling infinite diversity, simple designs are understandable, but their results are not predictable in reduced form.  This has huge ramifications.  It means you could design something that evolves with unintended consequences…a scary thought if working in biotech or some field whose outcome of your experiment could create a pathogen of death!  On the brighter side (a lot brighter) it means that designers can be charged to create more ‘organic’ solutions that can evolve and react to new needs, not just mindless programs that do only what they were originally coded for.
  • Model modularity is a powerful concept. In the IT world ‘SOA’ has followed ‘OO programming’ and ‘modular programming’ before that, as a more organized approach to producing, and reusing, functionality.  Stephen certainly understand the concept but extends the theory into his concept of computational modeling and in his products (like Wolfram Alpha).  I love what Stephen is doing both conceptually and practically.

There is a lot more to Stephen Wolfram, his contributions and  concepts, than I highlight here.  but if I may may two grand statements:

Statement 1 (not SO grand): Any IT organization (or any business for that matter) would be wise to deeply study what Stephen has done and is proposing to do, and develop a core competence in its application to IT & business.  There are deep implications for how to organize work, design products and solutions, and deliver value to your customers.  I would argue that just as concepts like industrialization, mass production, process reengineering, and six sigma quality had their time of birth, adoption, and eventual incorporation into the DNA of business management, so will the concept of computational modeling into the methods of planning,  production, integration, and service of businesses.  It certainly is happening today in many areas (again SOA being a trivial example) but is  not really recognized yet for the broader value it can provide.

Statement 2 (very grand): I believe the idea of simple computational models as the basis for understanding systems (whether they be mathematical systems, physical systems, biological systems, or the universe itself) is not only correct, but is, frankly, how God would have done it.  Seriously.  If you were God, would you build the world in 7 days by painstakingly creating and positioning every molecule?  Or would you, as  the Great Designer, craft the ability for systems (the universe) to start, and computationally evolve using simple models over eons of time?  The idea is so appealing.  And it can fit whether you are are deeply religious, spiritual, or atheist.  Given the fact of irreducibility, this Great Designer had ideas on what might evolve, yet enabled the freedom of evolution.

I hope you are intrigued enough by Stephen’s talk above to take a bit more time and think about this.  He has done a fabulous job of providing a fantastic view of, and methods for, Design, and one that still has very practical applications today.  He may well go down as the next Einstein in terms of contributing to the understanding of science, physics, and the universe.

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