Portrait of the genius as a young man.
It is fortifying to remember that the very idea of artificial intelligence was conceived by one of the more unquantifiably original minds of the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine a computer being able to do what Alan Turing did.
From Xerox PARC to the World Wide Web:
The internet did not use a visual spatial metaphor. Despite being accessed through and often encompassed by the desktop environment, the internet felt well and truly placeless (or perhaps everywhere). Hyperlinks were wormholes through the spatial metaphor, allowing a user to skip laterally across directories stored on disparate servers, as well as horizontally, deep into a file system without having to access the intermediate steps. Multiple windows could be open to the same website at once, shattering the illusion of a “single file” that functioned as a piece of paper that only one person could hold. The icons that a user could arrange on the desktop didn’t have a parallel in online space at all.
I am not a believer in the AI singularity — the rapture of the nerds — that is, in the possibility of building a brain-in-a-box that will self-improve its own capabilities until it outstrips our ability to keep up. What CS professor and fellow SF author Vernor Vinge described as “the last invention humans will ever need to make”. But I do think we’re going to keep building more and more complicated, systems that are opaque rather than transparent, and that launder our unspoken prejudices and encode them in our social environment. As our widely-deployed neural processors get more powerful, the decisions they take will become harder and harder to question or oppose. And that’s the real threat of AI — not killer robots, but “computer says no” without recourse to appeal.
We construct top-10 lists for movies, games, TV—pieces of work that shape our souls. But we don’t sit around compiling lists of the world’s most consequential bits of code, even though they arguably inform the zeitgeist just as much.
This is a fascinating way to look at the history of computing, by focusing in on culturally significant pieces of code. The whole list is excellent, but if I had to pick a favourite …well, see if you can guess what it is.
Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.
Frank yearns for just-in-time computing:
With each year that goes by, it feels like less and less is happening on the device itself. And the longer our work maintains its current form (writing documents, updating spreadsheets, using web apps, responding to emails, monitoring chat, drawing rectangles), the more unnecessary high-end computing seems. Who needs multiple computers when I only need half of one?
A bit of a tangent, but I love this description of reading maps:
Map reading is a complex and uniquely human skill, not at all obvious to a young child. You float out of your body and into the sky, leaving behind the point of view you’ve been accustomed to all your life. Your imagination turns squiggly blue lines and green shading into creeks, mountains, and forests seen from above. Bringing it all together in your mind’s eye, you can picture the surroundings.
Boolean logic manifested in a Turing-complete game
This is a great piece! It starts with a look back at some of the great minds of the nineteenth century: Herschel, Darwin, Babbage and Lovelace. Then it brings us, via JCR Licklider, to the present state of the web before looking ahead to what the future might bring.
So what will the life of an interface designer be like in the year 2120? or 2121 even? A nice round 300 years after Babbage first had the idea of calculations being executed by steam.
I think there are some missteps along the way (I certainly don’t think that inline styles—AKA CSS in JS—are necessarily a move forwards) but I love the idea of applying chaos engineering to web design:
Think of every characteristic of an interface you depend on to not ‘fail’ for your design to ‘work.’ Now imagine if these services were randomly ‘failing’ constantly during your design process. How might we design differently? How would our workflows and priorities change?
Before leading the software project that put men on the moon, Margaret Hamilton worked on the equations that led to chaos theory, followed by Mount Holyoke graduate, Ellen Fetter.
A terrific six-part series of short articles looking at the people behind the history of Artificial Intelligence, from Babbage to Turing to JCR Licklider.
- When Charles Babbage Played Chess With the Original Mechanical Turk
- Invisible Women Programmed America’s First Electronic Computer
- Why Alan Turing Wanted AI Agents to Make Mistakes
- The DARPA Dreamer Who Aimed for Cyborg Intelligence
- Algorithmic Bias Was Born in the 1980s
- How Amazon’s Mechanical Turkers Got Squeezed Inside the Machine
The history of AI is often told as the story of machines getting smarter over time. What’s lost is the human element in the narrative, how intelligent machines are designed, trained, and powered by human minds and bodies.
This article by Ian Bogost from a few years back touches on one of the themes in the talk I gave at New Adventures:
“Engineer” conjures the image of the hard-hat-topped designer-builder, carefully crafting tomorrow. But such an aspiration is rarely realized by computing. The respectability of engineering, a feature built over many decades of closely controlled, education- and apprenticeship-oriented certification, becomes reinterpreted as a fast-and-loose commitment to craftwork as business.
Photos from earlier this week:
In a small room in CERN’s Data Center, an international group of nine developers is taking a plunge back in time to the beginnings of the World Wide Web. Their aim is to enable the whole world to experience what the web looked like viewed within the very first browser developed by Tim Berners-Lee.
On the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think, Tim Berners-Lee delivered this address in 1995.
To a large part we have MEMEXes on our desks today. We have not yet seen the wide scale deployment of easy human interfaces for editing hypertext and making links. (I find this constantly frustrating, but always assume will be cured by cheap commercial products within the year.)
PIctures of computers (of the human and machine varieties).
A great interview with Ted Nelson at the Internet Archive where he reminisces about Doug Engelbart, Bob Taylor, Vannevar Bush, hypertext and Xanadu. Wind him and let him go!
There’s an interesting tidbit on what he’s up to next:
So, the first one I’m trying to build will just be a comment, but with two pages visibly connected. And the second bit will be several pages visibly connected. A nice example is Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, which is a long poem by the fictitious author John Shade, connected to a large number of idiotic footnotes by the fictitious academic Charles Kinbote.
Ironically, back in the days of the Dark Brown Project, I actually got permission from the publishers of Pale Fire to demonstrate it on the Brown system. So now I hope to demonstrate it on the new Xanadu.
Pale Fire is the poem referenced in Blade Runner 2049:
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked…
Cassie and I were swapping debugging stories. I shared the case of the 500 mile email with her. She shared this with me.
This is the best explanation of quantum computing I’ve read. I mean, it’s not like I can judge its veracity, but I could actually understand it.
This could’a, should’a, would’a been a great blog post.
March 1981: Shakin’ Stevens was top of the charts, Tom Baker was leaving Doctor Who and Clive Sinclair was bringing computers to the masses. Britain was moving into a new age, and one object above all would herald its coming.