Mike Beversluis

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Look on Wolfram Alpha's works, ye mighty, and despair

The problem with "smart" tools: Wolfram Alpha and hubristic user interfaces.

There's a long dissertation on the fatal flaw of Alpha, which is its wildly unpredictable natural language control, but the lesson which has always resonated with me is this:

At a more mundane level, however, we may ask: how do these obvious disasters come about? Man is flawed and hubris is eternal, of course. But really. Why, year after year, does the software industry piss away zillions of dollars, and repeatedly infuriate whatever gods there be, butting its head against this wall like a salmon trying to climb Boulder Dam? Why on earth do these mistakes continue to be designed, implemented, and shipped? By smart, smart people?

The simple answer is that both academia and the industry are, to a substantial extent, driven by hype. Hype gets press, and hype also gets funding. The press (Inquirer and Register excepted) is not a critical audience. The NSF is an even less critical audience - at least, for projects it is already pursuing. Again, if abject failure were an obstacle to continued funding, most of "computer science" would have ceased to exist sometime in the '90s. Instead, Professor Hearst will no doubt be able to pursue her ambitious goals until a comfortable retirement in the 2030s. Long live science!

Science is supposed to be rational, but people are limitedly so, and so much of "science" isn't. Nota Bene, I might be too cynical here, see the post below.

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