The Ultimate Question

Nov 1, 2014

In Douglas Adam’s novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, researchers from a “pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent race of beings”, construct a super computer called Deep Thought. The greatest computer of all time and space, Deep Thought is designed to calculate the answers to the universe’s deepest philosophical questions that even the race of highly intelligent beings are unable to answer such as: Why are we here? How did we get here? From where? What is the meaning of life?

What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?

After some debate, the inventors of Deep Thought come up with a question that they believe embodies all those questions and feed it into Deep Thought for processing. The question they pose is this: “What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?” Deep Thought begins processing and crunching data, and after seven and a half million years spits out the answer to the question. The answer is: “forty-two”.

One of the researchers, Loonquawl, is greatly disappointed and yells at Deep Thought: “Forty-two! Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”

Being a computer, Deep Thought doesn’t get angry but coolly responds to Loonquawl’s criticism: “I checked it very thoroughly and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

How true. The problem with answers is that they have little to no meaning if we are asking the wrong questions or do not fully understand the questions we’ve asked in the first place. This is made even trickier because the meaning of the word “meaning” is not exactly clear. What I mean by this is that the meaning of any information (i.e., a word, a message, an answer to a question) depends on how that information is interpreted. If you don’t know how information is to be interpreted, then you don’t know its meaning.

“Meaning is a bit like pornography,” wrote MIT professor Seth Lloyd in his excellent book Programming the Universe, “you know it when you see it.”

I think we all know what he means by that. (Okay, you can stop blushing.)

I was recently reminded of Deep Thought when I used Wolfram|Alpha, which is described as a “computational knowledge engine” at its website, www.wolframalpha.com. On its surface, Wolfram|Alpha is like a classic search engine such as Google. Under the hood, however, Wolfram|Alpha is very different. Unlike a search engine, which displays a list of search results for a given keyword or phrase, Wolfram|Alpha seeks to provide a succinct answer.

“Fifty years ago, when computers were young, people assumed that they’d quickly be able to handle all these kinds of things,” wrote Wolfram|Alpha founder Stephen Wolfram in his blog. “...that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer. But it didn’t work out that way. Computers have been able to do many remarkable and unexpected things. But not that. I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realized that I was finally in a position to try to do it.”

How does Wolfram|Alpha answer questions? It computes its answers from structured data—a lot of data—currently more than 10 trillion pieces of data and growing.

Behind Wolfram|Alpha, is the brilliant mind of distinguished physicist, computer scientist, and inventor Stephen Wolfram. Wolfram is perhaps best known as the creator of Mathematica, a high-end software program used extensively in science, engineering, and mathematics. In fact, Wolfram|Alpha’s core code base is built on 5 million lines of symbolic Mathematica code.

According to the Wolfram|Alpha website, “[the] long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything.”

What can be computed? Before we answer that, let’s establish what the word “computation” means. Computation is the processing of information. Information is structured data that informs its recipient about something. Information is facts, knowledge, a message received and understood. Anything that is information then is computable. You are processing information right now. You are performing computation. You are a computer. Of course, digital computers perform computation too (hence the name "computer") and are much better than humans at certain types of computation, such as mathematical computation.

What else contains information and is therefore computable? Let’s return to Lloyd’s book Programming the Universe:

“The universe is the biggest thing there is and the bit is the smallest possible chunk of information. The universe is made of bits. Every molecule, atom, and elementary particle registers bits of information...The history of the universe itself is, in effect, a huge and ongoing quantum computation. The universe is a quantum computer.”

Okay, but what, exactly, does the universe compute then my dear Professor Lloyd?

“It computes itself,” he writes. “The universe computes its own behavior.”

If Lloyd is correct about the universe being a quantum computer (and I believe he is) then the universe itself is the largest information processor (i.e., “computer”) that we know of. All other computers, including ourselves and those electronic boxes we commonly refer to as "computers" are just models of this universal computer.

Back down here on Earth, Wolfram|Alpha is another stab at modeling the universal computer. It is far from perfect at processing information and computing answers. But it is not without a sense of humor. When I feed the ultimate question—What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?—into Wolfram|Alpha’s little text input field, it quickly spits back the answer: “42”.

Now if we could only understand the meaning of the ultimate question, we’d be able to understand the ultimate answer and finally know why we are here, how we got here, and where we are going.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson. Archives of his columns and other postings can be found on his blog at: blog.insidethebox.org