Thoughts: Turing’s Cathedral

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book attempted to be both the story and the explanation of the first computer, and ended up accomplishing a very confused mix of the two. It’s a beautiful effort with a ton of information (and I understand from other reviews, new information) about the building of the first computer, and everything that led up to it, and its lasting impacts on the philosophy and structure of computing.

Unfortunately, the chronology was confusing, the narrative was unclear, the explanations assumed more knowledge than I had, and the rhapsodizing about search engines as the ultimate—even possibly thinking—computers put the other philosophical/prophetic passages in doubt.

I don’t have another history of computers book to suggest at the moment but I have a feeling that there are far better ones out there depending on your level of previous knowledge and desired depth of knowledge. It’s a shame because there’s so much great stuff in here. It was just hard to parse most of the time.

That being said, there were plenty of themes/questions/ideas/tidbits that got me thinking. Here are a few of those:

“The part that is stable we are going to predict. And the part that is unstable we are going to control.”

John von Neumann said that, and it’s part of a larger theme about how computers were made only once people realized that instead of expecting perfection, they should expect imperfection and account for it.

“There is reason to suspect that our predilection for linear codes, which have a simple, almost temporal sequence, is chiefly a literary habit.”

I have no idea if this is true but seems like an interesting thing to think about.

“If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent.”

So like humans then?

“Machines will dream first.”

Before thinking that is. What a wonderful thought. It brings to mind the silent square nineties computer that sat in my father’s office at home, alone in the dark after we all finally went to sleep. Did it dream?

“That the resulting human behavior can only be counted on statistically, not deterministically, is… no obstacle to the synthesis of those unreliable human beings into a reliable organism.”

This (which comes from the section on the future of computers, or what its first inventors thought of its future back in the fifties) is terrifying. Not only because it suggests a future where humans are controlled by computers, but because it means that now currently, we are already statistics. And the fact that predictions made about us based on human data are predictive but not deterministic is not a consolation.

Oh, and the origin story of the Monte Carlo method. It’s a great origin story and now I actually understand what it is!

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