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The Origins Of The Digital Universe

Science historian George Dyson on the birth of the digital age, and where we stand now.

George Dyson (credit Ann Yow-Dyson)

George Dyson (credit Ann Yow-Dyson)

We are living in a digital world.  We know it, but sometime we still don’t get it… just how much and how fast the world around us is changing in the digital embrace.  Historian George Dyson says it all goes back to huge ideas at the dawn of the computer age.

When physicists and mathematicians scrambled to break Nazi codes, and then to build machines that could calculate the unfathomable destructive power of the hydrogen bomb.  We have used computers to build a new age, he says.  Now computers use us.

This hour, On Point:  George Dyson on the birth of the digital age, and where we stand now.

-Tom Ashbrook


George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. You can read an excerpt of the book here.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wall Street Journal “A computer that can store (and thus modify) its own program, by contrast, can readily be adapted to different tasks. In fact, it can solve any problem one can put to it, given enough time. This universal power was what terrified—and thrilled—von Neumann; its theoretical underpinnings were the work of the British mathematician Alan Turing.”

The Independent “Dyson brings out many philosophical implications of the growth of computing power and the parallels between life’s codes and computer codes. But this is essentially the American side of the story, with John von Neumann as the central figure and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies as the backdrop. Von Neumann was a Hungarian Jewish mathematician who after a precocious early career came to Princeton in 1930.”

The Seattle Times “Copiously employing letters, memoirs, oral histories and personal interviews, Dyson organizes his book around the personalities of the men (and occasional woman) behind the computer, and does a splendid job in bringing them to life. Prime among them was John von Neumann, a brilliant Hungarian immigrant whose career spanned quantum mechanics, set theory, economics, computer science, nuclear-weapons design and a score of other fields (he invented game theory more or less in his spare time).”

Video: Google Tech Talks

Check out this 2008 lecture that Dyson gave on “Turing’s Cathedral.”

Video: ENIAC Computer

This video shows the operation of the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer or ENIAC computer built at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946.

Video: Computer Singing

This video from 1961 shows the computer “Daisy Bell,” the first machine programed to sing.

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  • Anonymous

    The way our digital universe infrastructure is installed allows the NSA to see every keystroke and mouse move, hear every word. The 4th Amendment is Constitutional literalism will bring it back. See James Bamford and whistleblower Thomas Drake on today’s Democracy Now. Computers originated as business machines and the still “mean business.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=680340381 Philip Lovelace

    That last clip… Hal9000 anyone? :D

  • Patrik

    I watched IRobot for the ump teenth time last night.  Are there actually any centralized computer nerve centers like VIKI in the movie IRobot or SkyNet from the Terminator movies yet?

    • Patrik

      Sorry, VIKI=Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence

  • Sam

    “I failed the Turing test”

  • Sam

    And what are we supposed to do now? Not use the computers?

    As a programmer … I don’t see a way out.


  • pb

    The guest has not answered Tom’s question about why we should care.

    • Sam

       Maybe YOU shouldn’t

      Unplug, you still have the power. :)

  • Sam

    Navajo Code Talkers

  • Longfellow’s Evangeline

    Mathematical Model Building – Go Hyperbolic.
    Lookee here http://charles.vassallo.pagesperso-orange.fr/en/lyap_art/lyapdoc.html

  • Longfellow’s Evangeline

    ON GROWTH AND FORM, by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, (1860-1948)  Dover Publications

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

    At the rate of current technological advancement, how long will it take before digital computing power mirrors that of the human brain?

    • Drew You Too

      In terms of raw computing power there are already systems in existence that exceed the perceived “computing power” (if you’re speaking in terms of speed) of the human brain. The only rift that seems to still exist is that potentially the human brain has an unlimited storage capacity. As far as large scale calculation and speed of access are concerned, we were outpaced almost at the outset.

  • Sam

    Alan Turing posed the question
    Can machines think?

    I think we’re still “answering” it.

  • Marianna

    This isn’t exactly the focus of this  hour, but since Klaus Fuchs was mentioned, I thought I’d share this link to an article my sister wrote about our uncle.

  • Sam

    The law is named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, who described the trend in his 1965 paper.[6][7][8]
    The paper noted that the number of components in integrated circuits
    had doubled every year from the invention of the integrated circuit in
    1958 until 1965 and predicted that the trend would continue “for at
    least ten years”.[9] His prediction has proved to be uncannily accurate, in part because the law is now used in the semiconductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development.[10]

  • Chris_in_Cambridge

    Why is the guest speaking so softly?  This show is so quiet you’d think there was a baby sleeping in the studio.

  • Sam

    Oh oh oh …
    What about the “Psychohistory”?!??!

  • Sam

    Psychohistory depends on the idea that, while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events. 

    - Asimov, Foundations

  • Sam

    Or better yet, the notion that Earth and everything and everyone on Earth is the super powerful computer?!?!?!
    From Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy!!!

  • Longfellow’s Evangeline

    Can’t find the reference, I think Dover also published book of the collection of empirical data that developed flood forcasting based on collection of rainfall data.  It was a Russian author, began with a B, I think.  All the ‘facts on the ground’ empirical data that led to models of Mother Nature is ‘of the devil’ in ‘christian math departments.’  For the rest of us it is of the ‘dibble’.  Because it was USSR, it was ‘out to get them.’  Yep, American tea drinkers, can’t stand anything ‘imaginative’ but the apocolypse.  Let them drink tea, and pass them by.  The rest of the world has read all the important books.  They are not waiting for permission to carry-on.

  • Anonymous

    Question: Does the digital architecture of computers radically change, or become obsolete, once quantum computing becomes a reality?  when an electron can be in many states instead of only 1 or 0?

  • Richard Hunter

    Can/should computers, like robots in Isaac Asimov’s works, be subject to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?
    !. A robot may not harm a human being, mor through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must follow orders given to it by humans, unless doing this would violate the first law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence unless doing this would violate the first or second law.

    • Sam

       You’re forgetting the 0′th law
      0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

      • Sam

        There is a group of people who are working very hard to define such or similar laws for current AI work.

        What and how (if at all) would things be different in “Terminator” movies, and “Matrix”, and “Space Odyssey” … if the computers were limited by the Asimov’s Laws?

        • Richard Hunter

           Sam, in reply to both your comments: I remembered and greatly respect the zeroth Law –but I was trying to get that comment in before the end of the show, thinking it could really impact the conversation on the digital universe.

          Second, what if the Predator drones that US military uses to kill at long range were subject to these laws? In effect, human beings could (SHOULD!!!) be prevented, by laws inherent in all robots, from using robots (and computers??) to kill one another OR TO MAKE WAR ON ONE ANOTHER!!!

  • Tim

    This digital age is just a continuation of what the universe has been doing since the begining.  The combing of exhisting componenets into a new more complex entity that emerges from the more simple parts.  Humans will combine with the computers to make and a new entity will emerge that incorporates both.  Humans will become organs in a larger entity.

  • Sam

    The last called that pointed out to the importance of government funded R&D money for things like these – failed to also point out the Second Moore’s Law – “The cost of building chip fabrication plants will continue to
    increase (and the return on investment to decrease) until it becomes
    fiscally untenable to build new plants.”

    coupled with the fact that we, the taxpayers PAY for it all.

    I am not against govt funded R&D, but there has to be limits.
    Do we need to be the first ones, in this field? All the time? At any cost?

    What happens if we’re not?
    And is it worth it?

  • AC

    darn it – i keep missing the good shows lately…i’ll have to podcast this one!!

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  • Anonymous

    This was Tom Ashbrook’s doubly good program tonight  Wow. Here we are at this point of human history with so much in our power to bend this way or that and can effect our lives in fundamental ways forever. We really have come a long way. And I keep marveling at npr.org – it truly is a national treasure.

  • the _centrist

    this guy was a horrible speaker. he goes from enthusiastic to mumbling within the same though spew.

    • Rex

      Who does this guy think he is, Dr. Ian Malcom? 

  • the _centrist

    here goes the show for all my old college computer science professors and all the old IBM castaways to get nostalgic.

  • JB

    George Dyson may be a good scientist and historian but he gave a terrible interview. His voice wandered rendering the interview unlistenable and frustrating. It was as if he was turning away from the mic whenever he was making an important point.  Not ready for main stream media.

  • Jim Mars

    Today’s automobiles have many digital computers built into them–the most important of which control the engine and its auxiliaries so as to produce much higher economy and much lower emissions than vehicles built with strictly mechanical or electro-mechanical controls.

    I am reminded of why I bought, second hand, a 1973 Volvo wagon with electronic fuel injection: so we could have a car that did not stall when it was cold or wet, as our Plymouth Valiant always did.   This model could be sold in California, even!

    The engine computer for the Volvo, which was about the size of a laptop,  sat under the front passenger seat and even when the car was 13 years old and had 140,000 miles on the odometer worked fine and gave us no trouble.   We sold the car for less than the buyer could have gotten for just the CPU.  To my knowledge, this was an analog electronic computer.   As long as you wanted it to do exactly what it was designed to do, it worked perfectly, but it could not be “flashed”, or reprogrammed, as can today’s engine computers.   So analog computing lasted until digital computing grew in capacity and fell in cost to “catch” it!

    Jim Mars in Toronto

  • Ecshapirobanjo

    the speaker is terrible. explains nothing clearly. the interviewer is equally bad

  • Jux

    HORRID.  I don’t know why his publishing company let him loose.  SPEAK UP!!!

    • Slipstream

       Har har!  Funny – but I still want to read the book.

  • Wm. James from Missouri

    Mr. George Dyson, I would like to apologize to you for the rudeness of some of the comments posted about you on this website regarding this show. All humans are not like this. Having said this, I hope the prior sentence will help to answer the question ‘ Why should we care ? ‘. My answer to this is : Computers ( and the minds that are capable of dealing with such thoughts ) offer us the hope of a better day, a future time when humans will no longer dwell in a field of imperfection and incompleteness. Alan Turing , von Neumann, Kurt Gödel , Leibniz, Pascal, Euler, Plato … understood this implicitly.

    Side Point # 1:
    To glimpse Turing’s brilliance , you might consider reading “ The Essential Turing”, by B. Jack Copland, Oxford Press.

    Side Point # 2:
    The Entscheidungsproblem doesn’t just prove the limits of computers but all computing machines, including the human mind. ( This has profound implications to negating theological arguments ! ( Sorry R. Dawkins ! ) )
    Side Point # 3:
    Why not try to solve a problem like a computer does by using different methods ? [ Note: computers use base 2 arithmetic, here I will act like a computer but I will use base 10 , like we do in everyday affairs. ]
    843 minus 57 is of course equal to 786. [ in base ten]
    Now take the nines complement of 57 , which is 42 ( you get this by taking 5 from 9, then 7 from 9, and putting them back in their proper column )
    So to subtract 57 from 843, I will instead add 42 to 843 to get:
    843 + 42 = 885
    Now I will take “ 1” away from the “ 8” in the number 885 and add it to the “ 5” in 885 to get the final answer of : 786 !
    This is basically how computers subtract numbers. It is not hard, it is just new to many of you. Look it up online to learn more. You will never learn anything by being suborn.

  • Bin

    Good interview about where the digital age began. To see where it will be heading in the near future, read Word War III on http://www.theplaychannel.com

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