8 must-see TED talks for IT pros

Watch these brief, illuminating talks on everything from gesture-based computing and extreme data visualization to gaming to save the world.

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Stephen Wolfram on creating a computational theory of the universe

Date: February 2010

Length: 17 minutes, 34 seconds, plus Q&A (2 minutes, 28 seconds)

Stephen Wolfram is a brilliant mathematician who invented the Mathematica technical computing software and the WolframAlpha computational search engine. Rather than simply linking to sites where the answers might reside, as most search engines do, WolframAlpha responds to search queries by combining raw scientific data with mathematical computations to arrive at answers.

It hasn't exactly overtaken Google in popularity, but it does provide plenty of value to its users. [Related story: "WolframAlpha takes search in a whole new direction"]

Wolfram's TED talk is both amazing and a bit of a stretch. The fundamental concept of his talk -- that all computations can live on the Web -- sets the stage for an earth-shattering conclusion. Wolfram asserts that the computational universe is discoverable -- that once all computations are on the Web, it will be possible to find the computation for the physical universe.

Stephen Wolfram: Computing a theory of everything.© TED Conferences LLC, distributed under Creative Commons license.

"If the rules for the universe are simple, it's kind of inevitable that they have to be very abstract and very low level -- operating, for example, far below the level of space or time -- which makes it hard to represent things," he says in the talk. "But in at least a large class of cases, one can think of the universe as being like some kind of network, which, when it gets big enough, behaves like continuous space in much the same way as having lots of molecules can behave like a continuous fluid."

Wolfram says that he hopes to amass enough knowledge and computational power to "hold in our hands the rule for our universe and know where our universe lies in the space of all possible universes." Then, he says, we could type "What is the theory of the universe?" into WolframAlpha, and the program would tell us.

Reality check: "Wolfram is a genius and sees further than almost all of us," says Peddie. "However, his vision is one thing and the realization of it another -- one has to wait for technology and society to catch up."

"What's wrong with Wolfram's presentation," Peddie continues, "is he starts with the premise that the encyclopedic nature of the Web is valid and correct, and all one has to do is come up with a clever search-analysis algorithm to extract its richness quickly. That also presumes the user is clever enough to even form a cognizant question and frame it in a way Wolfram's algorithm can recognize."

Enderle says he's taking a "wait and see" approach to Wolfram's ideas. "The resources currently focused on this problem seem inadequate, but that was also the case with DNA -- mapping [the human genome] was done more quickly than many thought possible," he says. "This is one of those 'change the world' ideas that may have more trouble overcoming well-defended misconceptions in order to validate the founding points of the mathematical model than in actually building the model. But make no mistake: Were this successfully done, it would change the world as we currently think we know it."

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