I was recently at Transmediale in Berlin and witnessed Conrad Wolfram's (pictured) keynote. He's the strategic director of Wolfram Alpha, a search engine that launched May 18th 2009.

The idea behind Wolfram Alpha is fundamentally different from most other search engines. It attempts to answer questions as apposed to showing where your search term applies in context. If you've never tried it, it's worth exploring a little.

Conrad has a mission to mix human interaction and intuition with mathematical computational power. He believes that over the last 10 years knowledge, by in large, has been democratized and now we need to democratize computational expertise and knowledge creation. He got a point!

Is Wolfram Alpha the future of search? He suggests that that's the wrong question and we should be asking what is the future of answers.

Conrad poses the interesting question that, in an age of mass computational power what role should humans play? In schools we educate our children in the process of mathematics although in the real world no person would ever work through a calculus problem (for example) on paper, they would run it through a computer program. So why are we wasting valuable time teaching redundant processes. Shouldn't we be teaching calculus to 10 year old kids? Understanding calculus and what it does is fairly simple but being able to do the process is not. So we *could *abandon the process?

Conrad suggests that there are many things in life we used to need to know how to do but increasingly machines are taking away those tasks, so should we bother to learn them?

I think we have to understand when the process can be split from the task. This is key. If the two are separate entities and one part can be done more efficiently by a machine, like in the case of calculus, then could we save time and learn something we actually need?

I challenged him on this further after his talk and he gave me the example of ancient Greek. In terms of language, it could be said to be important to understand the importance of ancient Greek and the part it plays in modern language but to understand that, do you need to learn ancient Greek? Probably not.

In an age when the education model is so broken the idea of saving time to focus on what is more important seems like something worth thinking about.

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