Matthew Cook probably violated an NDA he signed with Wolfram Research

This is a follow-up to this comment on a previous post of mine about (Stephen) Wolfram.

The comment, by gwern:

Charitably, I think that makes his apparent 'arrogance' better understood as something like a 'literary convention', especially given the plausibility of him having 'independently re-discovered' some of the particular results he reports.

Is it customary to sue over literary conventions?

Gwern linked to the "History" section of the Wikipedia page about Rule 110:

In 2004, Matthew Cook published a proof that Rule 110 with a particular repeating background pattern is Turing complete, i.e., capable of universal computation, which Stephen Wolfram had conjectured in 1985.[1] Cook presented his proof at the Santa Fe Institute conference CA98 before publication of Wolfram's book A New Kind of Science. This resulted in a legal affair based on a non-disclosure agreement with Wolfram Research.[2] Wolfram Research blocked publication of Cook's proof for several years.[3]

I suspect that the account in the second comment below is the most plausible explanation of what resulted in this lawsuit; from a comment on Hacker News and two replies to it from NKS contains a mention of the proof that Rule 110 is Turing Complete. This is ge... | Hacker News [formatted]:

LowKarmaAccount on June 24, 2013 | parent | context | favorite | on: Celebrating Mathematica’s First Quarter Century

NKS contains a mention of the proof that Rule 110 is Turing Complete. This is genuinely interesting, but it doesn't change its field in a significant way. Of course, Wolfram didn't come up with the proof himself. That was done by Matthew Cook while he was working for Wolfram Research. Stephen Wolfram obtained a court order preventing Cook from presenting his result before NKS was published, because he claimed that publishing this result violated an NDA Cook signed.

taliesinb on June 24, 2013 | next [–]

According to Wolfram, Cook's job was to prove Rule 110 was universal. Cook didn't "discover" it as an independent action.

In a very direct sense, this was a software development task, where the program that was being written was precisely a universal program (through several layers of emulation, of course; rule 110 -> 'particle computer' -> cyclic tag system -> Turing machine). It's an impressive program, but also quite mechanical. More details: http://www.wolframscience.com/nksonline/page-681#previous

Here's the timeline as far as I've been able to determine, mostly from sources inside the company:

  1. Wolfram tasked Cook with finding a proof that 110 was universal.
  2. With encouragement and help, Cook finished the proof many years before the book was ready.
  3. Cook tried to publish the program/proof at some complexity conference.
  4. Wolfram asked him not to, because it was against the terms of his contract.
  5. Cook agreed not to, but then did it anyway.
  6. Wolfram threatened legal action to prevent the proof being published.

This kind of thing is clearly a breakdown of the relationship between Cook and Wolfram. Is there a good guy and a bad guy? Maybe, maybe not. But if we see this proof as a program, I'm sure many people would agree that publishing code one was paid to write, without permission, is kind of a no-no.

To my mind, this doesn't so much paint Wolfram as a lawsuit-happy egomaniac as it does expose some of the contradictions of a running a private company as a commercial venture and as a vehicle for one's own research.

edit: I work for Wolfram, as probably some HN users already know and as I mention elsewhere on this thread. But when I heard about the whole Cook thing a couple of years ago, I asked around about what happened to make sure I wasn't working for a company that was unethical. The above is what I was able to determine.

jpdoctor on June 24, 2013 | prev [–]

Stephen Wolfram obtained a court order preventing Cook from presenting his result before NKS was published, because he claimed that publishing this result violated an NDA Cook signed.

BTW, this provided insight into question exactly what was Wolfram's results and what was taken from his colleagues/employees.

It very much confused me when I first read about the court order: Did he really not have enough of his own results in NKS that he needed to hide the fact that the results were not originally his? And merely by asking the question, the answer seems obvious.

Other sources

The following were found directly or indirectly from a Google search of wolfram matthew cook lawsuit.

A brief mention and CA (cellular automata) background

Interesting, but about CAs (cellular automatas) and only briefly mentioning the lawsuit

Matthew Cook's (eventual) paper

Matthew Cook's paper – that triggered the lawsuit?:

The abstract:

The purpose of this paper is to prove a conjecture made by Stephen Wolfram in 1985, that an elementary one dimensional cellular automaton known as "Rule 110" is capable of universal computation. I developed this proof of his conjecture while assisting Stephen Wolfram on research for A New Kind of Science [1].

The 'infamous' review

I think this is the 'infamous' review I've read before (several times):

The opening:

The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi 132

A New Kind of Science

by Stephen Wolfram

Wolfram Media, 2002


A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity

Attention conservation notice: Once, I was one of the authors of a paper on cellular automata. Lawyers for Wolfram Research Inc. threatened to sue me, my co-authors and our employer, because one of our citations referred to a certain mathematical proof, and they claimed the existence of this proof was a trade secret of Wolfram Research. I am sorry to say that our employer knuckled under, and so did we, and we replaced that version of the paper with another, without the offending citation. I think my judgments on Wolfram and his works are accurate, but they're not disinterested.

The lawsuit:

The real problem with this result, however, is that it is not Wolfram's. He didn't invent cyclic tag systems, and he didn't come up with the incredibly intricate construction needed to implement them in Rule 110. This was done rather by one Matthew Cook, while working in Wolfram's employ under a contract with some truly remarkable provisions about intellectual property. In short, Wolfram got to control not only when and how the result was made public, but to claim it for himself. In fact, his position was that the existence of the result was a trade secret. Cook, after a messy falling-out with Wolfram, made the result, and the proof, public at a 1998 conference on CAs. (I attended, and was lucky enough to read the paper where Cook goes through the construction, supplying the details missing from A New Kind of Science.) Wolfram, for his part, responded by suing or threatening to sue Cook (now a penniless graduate student in neuroscience), the conference organizers, the publishers of the proceedings, etc. (The threat of legal action from Wolfram that I mentioned at the beginning of this review arose because we cited Cook as the person responsible for this result.)

Of course, lots of professors add their names to their students' papers, and many lab-chiefs owe their enviable publication records to the fact that they automatically add their names to the end of every manuscript prepared under their command. If Wolfram did that, he would merely be perpetuating one of the more common abuses of the current scientific community. But to deny Cook any authorship, and to threaten people with lawsuits to keep things quiet, is indeed very low. Happily, the suit between Wolfram and Cook has finally been resolved, and Cook's paper has been published, under his own name, in Wolfram's journal Complex Systems.

From the notes of NKS (A New Kind of Science)

Historical Notes from Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science:

From: Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science<br/> Notes for Chapter 11: The Notion of Computation<br/> Section: The Rule 110 Cellular Automaton<br/> Page 1115

History [of universal 1D cellular automata]. The fact that 1D cellular automata can be universal was discussed by Alvy Ray Smith in 1970 - who set up an 18-color nearest-neighbor cellular automaton rule capable of emulating Marvin Minsky’s 7-state 4-color universal Turing machine (see page 706). (Roger Banks also mentioned in 1970 a 17-color cellular automaton that he believed was universal.) But without any particular reason to think it would be interesting, almost nothing was done on finding simpler universal 1D cellular automata. In 1984 I suggested that cellular automata showing what I called class 4 behavior should be universal - and I identified some simple rules (such as k=2, r=2 totalistic code 20) as explicit candidates. A piece published in Scientific American in 1985 describing my interest in finding simple 1D universal cellular automata led me to receive a large number of proofs of the fact (already well known to me) that 1D cellular automata can in principle emulate Turing machines. In 1989 Kristian Lindgren and Mats Nordahl constructed a 7-color nearest-neighbor cellular automaton that could emulate Minsky’s 7,4 universal Turing machine, and showed that in general a rule with s + k + 2 colors could emulate an s-state k-color Turing machine (compare page 658). Following my ideas about class 4 cellular automata I had come by 1985 to suspect that rule 110 must be universal. And when I started working on the writing of this book in 1991, I decided to try to establish this for certain. The general outline of what had to be done was fairly clear - but there were an immense number of details to be handled, and I asked a young assistant of mine named Matthew Cook to investigate them. His initial results were encouraging, but after a few months he became increasingly convinced that rule 110 would never in fact be proved universal. I insisted, however, that he keep on trying, and over the next several years he developed a systematic computer-aided design system for working with structures in rule 110. Using this he was then in 1994 successfully able to find the main elements of the proof. Many details were filled in over the next year, some mistakes were corrected in 1998, and the specific version in the note below was constructed in 2001. Like most proofs of universality, the final proof he found is conceptually quite straightforward, but is filled with many excruciatingly elaborate details. And among these details it is certainly possible that a few errors still remain. But if so, I believe that they can be overcome by the same general methods that have been used in the proof so far. Quite probably a somewhat simpler proof can be given, but as discussed on page 722 it is essentially inevitable that proofs of universality must be at least somewhat complicated. In the future it should be possible to give a proof in a form that can be checked completely by computer. (The initial conditions in the note below quite soon become too large to run explicitly on any existing computer.) And in addition, with sufficient effort, I believe one should be able to construct an automated system that will allow many universality proofs of this general kind to be found almost entirely by computer (compare page 810).

Pretty off-topic

This was fun:

Richard Feynman gave Wolfram some very warm advice about the latter running an institute – Wolfram didn't follow the advice and (arguably) proved Feynman wrong!

It was linked-to here, which didn't have anything interesting about the lawsuit:

Wikipedia

Matthew Cook's Wikipedia page:

From it:

Work with Stephen Wolfram

In the 1990s Cook worked as a research assistant to Stephen Wolfram, assisting with work on Wolfram's book, A New Kind of Science. Among other things, he developed a proof showing that the Rule 110 cellular automaton is Turing-complete.

Cook presented his proof at the Santa Fe Institute conference CA98 before the publishing of Wolfram's book—an action that led Wolfram Research to accuse Cook of violating his NDA and resulted in the blocking of the publication of the proof in the conference proceedings. [1]

A New Kind of Science was released in 2002 with an outline of the proof. In 2004, Cook published his proof in Wolfram's journal Complex Systems.[2]

Summary

My theory/hypothesis:

  1. Wolfram employed Matthew Cook.
  2. (Stephen) Wolfram assigned Matthew Cook the project of constructing a proof (hypothetical computer program) of the universality of Rule 110.
  3. (Stephen) Wolfram and others assisted with and supported Cook's eventual (possibly correct) proof.
  4. Matthew Cook published a paper about his proof but (Stephen) Wolfram did not want him to do that and sued to block the publishing of the paper.
  5. Wolfram also "threatened to sue" the authors of another paper that cited Cook's paper and those other authors removed the citation under that threat.
  6. The lawsuit was long (~3.5 years) and boring and the two parties eventually settled.
  7. NKS was released in 2002.
  8. Cook published his proof in Wolfram's journal Complex Systems in 2004.

I think it was reasonable, if not a preference I think I would have shared, for Stephen Wolfram to block the publishing of Cook's paper until after NKS had been released. I think Wolfram just wanted to reveal (the existence of) the proof in NKS first. I strongly suspect that Cook's employment agreements (e.g. an NDA) did in fact obligate him to NOT publish his paper without permission from his employer.

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I think you are missing the point.

When people bring this up, no one is arguing that Wolfram did not have a legal basis to sue or that the NDA was fabricated or anything like that. (Legally it may be questionable in some regards, and had it gone to trial Cook might've been vindicated or paid only trivial damages - what damages? - but that's not the central issue here.)

They bring it up because it is a shocking violation of norms, even commercial ones because zero money was at stake, for a rich entrepreneur like Wolfram to so punitively use the court system to go after an employee like that for something so utterly academic & a truly microscopic detail of CS theory where he knows full well that it will cost them a ton of money to fight it even for just a settlement and where the lawsuit could accomplish no good (in the tiny world of CAs, surely most people interested heard from the conference or were there). This was not "a literary convention"; this was cruel and vindictive.

And also because Wolfram's subsequent behavior and the text of NKS further demonstrated the self-aggrandizing behavior he was already infamous for. He knew many readers would know about the lawsuit, and would be examining the Rule 110 part closely. He nevertheless wrote NKS as it is: you can almost hear the teeth being pulled as he grudgingly mentions Cook at all instead of what was obviously the original plan (done with all the others) of just a brief mention of unspecified work, sort of like when a PI mentions a grad student in the acknowledgment section for 'coding' or 'experiments', using omission to take all the credit. NDA or no, that is not kosher citation. (Why don't any of the others complain or document what they did? Maybe because Wolfram would frigging sue them! Most people would rather keep quiet to keep their retirement funds & house than risk liquidating their 401k or mortgaging their house to hire high-powered IP lawyers to fight the owner of a corp with annual revenue >$100m & software margins. Toxic.)

You link the endnotes, buried 1100 pages deep, where Wolfram spends much of it talking about how awesome he is for overseeing the proof (done [deep Wolfram sigh] by some irrelevant young guy named Cook - did I mention he was an assistant? because he was assisting me, Wolfram - who would have failed without the guidance of me, Wolfram, anyway enough about him), which is bad enough, but at least it does give Cook credit...? Except that in the main text Wolfram is silent and strongly implies he did it himself (referring to "several years of work" which in the context of discussing his own views & work on related problems over time any reader will take to mean that Wolfram did the rule 110 proof). It's quite hilarious in its own way if you look at the NKS hits for 'Cook'; Wolfram simply cannot mention or give any credit to Cook without jamming himself in:

History [of cyclic tag systems] Cyclic tag systems were studied by Matthew Cook in 1994 in connection with working on the rule 110 cellular automaton for this book.

The set (a) below was announced by Roger Penrose in 1994; the slightly smaller set (b) was found by Matthew Cook as part of the development of this book.

But I have been fortunate over the years to employ a variety of talented assistants, who have helped the project in many different ways: Eric Berg (project management, 2000–2001), Jason Cawley (historical and philosophical issues, 2001–2002 and before), Matthew Cook (technical content, particularly constructions and proofs, 1991–1998), Andrew de Laix (technical content and book production systems, 1998–2002), Matthew Frank (mathematical and historical issues, 2001–2002), Andrea Gerlach (fact finding and checking, 1999–2002), David Hillman (constructions and other technical content, 1997–2001), Scott Koranda (book production systems and project management, 1996–1998), Ed Pegg, Jr.

It would be so easy not to do any of that! He doesn't mention the source for Penrose, just the date, he could easily have done the same thing for Cook - but he just can't bring himself to leave himself out. It would be so easy to be a little more specific than 'technical content' (...what other content is there in NKS, exactly...), like 'Rule 110 proof' (which is 3 letters shorter, even, so he's going out of his way to be vague and meanwhile raising questions about how many of the proofs were done by the others similarly cursorily dispensed with) - but he just cannot do it. Because he's Wolfram.

I think I'm missing a LOT of context you have about this. I very well could be – probably am – missing some point, but I also feel like you're discouraging me from voicing anything that doesn't assume whatever your point is. Is it just that "Stephen Wolfram is bad and everyone should ignore him."? I honestly tried to investigate this, however poorly I might have done that, but this comment comes across as pretty hostile. Is it your intention to dissuade me from writing about this at all?

They bring it up because it is a shocking violation of norms, even commercial ones because zero money was at stake, for a rich entrepreneur like Wolfram to so punitively use the court system to go after an employee like that for something so utterly academic & a truly microscopic detail of CS theory where he knows full well that it will cost them a ton of money to fight it even for just a settlement and where the lawsuit could accomplish no good (in the tiny world of CAs, surely most people interested heard from the conference or were there). This was not "a literary convention"; this was cruel and vindictive.

I don't what norms you're referring to!

But, AFAIK, some commercial norms do in fact condone or allow for aggressive enforcement of NDAs, even where there are is (obviously) "zero money at stake". I also guessed that the point of the lawsuit was maybe (partially) about 'enforcing NDAs generally' too, which is also one way it could 'accomplish good' even tho it didn't prevent dissemination of the info in the paper itself.

If a member of any other research team, in defiance of their team leader ('lead/principle investigator'), published a paper describing work done on a team project, is there no recourse or punishment expected?

Do researchers have a blanket right to publish at any time, on their own, about work they've done as an employee? That's surprising if true! I wouldn't think that's true even in purely academic organizations.

How do you know that Wolfram's 'original plan' wasn't to allow Cook to publish the paper of his proof after the release of NKS? Is there some reason why making Cook wait was unconscionable? I'm sincerely curious! What's the big deal? Why was Cook waiting so bad that of course he should have been able to publish his paper whenever he wanted? Or was making him wait a year fine, but three (or more) not?

Why didn't Cook just retract his paper and settle with Wolfram immediately? I couldn't find any relevant details about the suit and it appeared to me that the records were sealed, so I'd guess only the people involved could answer.

I don't understand your theory of Cook. Why did he publish the paper when apparently Wolfram, his employer, didn't want him to do that? Why didn't he just retract or withdraw his paper? Why was he in the right in all of this? (Was he in the right about this?) Should Wolfram have just ignored Cook publishing the paper? Why shouldn't he have asserted his legal right to control when the paper was published? What's different about this specific paper than others, in both academia and commercial research? What am I missing?

I am very sympathetic to the lawsuit being "cruel and vindictive"! But I'm also sympathetic to being "cruel and vindictive". If a (hypothetical) employee of mine openly defied my orders, e.g. released info about work I'd paid them to do and told them not to publish – I'd be pissed! If they had signed a legal agreement to NOT do that kind of thing too, I suspect I'd think of suing them myself. That the project was a non-fiction book doesn't seem like it'd make this that much different. If nothing else, Cook deprived Wolfram of being able to market NKS as announcing that particular result.

As for the citation/credit generally, NKS is a large book and, AFAICT, it was NOT intended to be an 'academic' work. Had it been written in that 'style', I'd guess it would have been WAY too big to have been published at all.

Is there in fact a reasonable way that Wolfram could have cited other's works, and described the contributions to the book itself, that would work not only for the work done by Matthew Cook, but everyone else involved?

I still don't know very many details of all the contributions to just the Rule 110 proof paper!

(I don't even know what academic paper authorship means. AFAIK, it is somewhat specific to the field

I am happy to admit that it's certainly very likely that Wolfram failed to properly cite other's work, or fairly credit their contributions. I am very sure that he does in fact have a reputation for that.

He nevertheless wrote NKS as it is: you can almost hear the teeth being pulled as he grudgingly mentions Cook at all instead of what was obviously the original plan (done with all the others) of just a brief mention of unspecified work, sort of like when a PI mentions a grad student in the acknowledgment section for 'coding' or 'experiments', using omission to take all the credit. NDA or no, that is not kosher citation.

I can't "almost hear the teeth being pulled" but I'm even more confused – is Wolfram's own citations 'merely' as bad as that done by many other PIs? I can't tell what standard you're judging him by, or how well I should expect him to fare by it, especially given his reputation for doing poorly in this area.

What does the distribution of how well others do in this regard look like? Are, e.g. 95% of researchers, or authors of 'pop science' books, basically 'perfect'? Is Wolfram uniquely terrible?

I also can't see what you mean by Wolfram "jamming himself in" in any of the quotes you provided.

I also don't know that Cook didn't do other "technical content" besides the Rule 110 proof.

I thought Wolfram was clear about NKS being a 'team effort' so I still think it's (somewhat) reasonable that a much longer and more detailed description of more precise contributions were omitted.