[SIGCIS-Members] The latest inventor of the computer

James Sumner james.sumner at manchester.ac.uk
Fri Mar 24 02:41:18 PDT 2017


These days, on encountering any news story or feature that seems to be 
touting a particularly bizarre claim, I try to make sure I look at the 
text without reference to the headline, which is often constructed by a 
subeditor without input or right of veto from the author. (Same applies 
to standfirsts, where these are used: I have seen some particularly mad 
examples of this form, even when both the headline and article are 
restrained.) As Tom points out, Chris Dixon's /Atlantic/ piece has its 
problems, but is considerably saner than its headline.

"How Aristotle Created the Computer" has an unfortunate ring of 
self-parody for anyone familiar with technological precursoritis. I was 
reminded of a line from the /TVGoHome/ book: "Recent archaeological digs 
have unearthed evidence of a primitive Inca television set. Unlike 
modern units it had no screen, and resembled a decorative cup. Instead 
of broadcasting programmes, historians believe it was mainly used for 
drinking liquid."

JS


On 23 Mar 17 21:39, Seamus Sweeney wrote:
> As often happens, dear old Ireland can claim an even earlier 
> invention:  - https://csiweb.ucd.ie/content/symbol-vec-newgrange
>
> Over 5000 years ago tomb builders in the Boyne Valley constructed, 
> possibly, the first optical computer in the world using the main tomb 
> at Newgrange.  Every winter solstice the light at dawn on the horizon 
> shines through a unique box-like structure over the main entrance, 
> down the passage to the very back of the tomb; indicating very 
> precisely the time of the the year. While the outer stones of the 
> Newgrange tumulus are artistically decorated with spirals and 
> losenges, the meaning of which is unknown, the reverse side of these 
> kerb stones have less well-executed symbols (dot patterns, diamonds, 
> spirals, losenges and so on) which are assumed to have some symbolic 
> meaning. The aim of this project is to use the word2vec system to 
> analyse the co-occurrence structure of these symbols with a view to 
> saying something about the similarities between different stones 
> and/or sites. Several current analyses have been carried out, based on 
> percentages of coverage of certain symbols on given stones, but an 
> extensive and complete analysis has yet to be carried out. Using an 
> analogy to documents, each tomb can be treated as a document, each 
> stone as a sentence and each symbol as a work.   The aim of the system 
> would be to detemine statistically what symbols tend to co-occur with 
> other symbols at different locations.
>
> On 23 March 2017 at 21:34, Thomas Haigh <thomas.haigh at gmail.com 
> <mailto:thomas.haigh at gmail.com>> wrote:
>
>     That’s precisely why my CACM article had the tag line “Separating
>     the origins of computer science and technology.” Computer science
>     comes along later, and assembles its foundations long after actual
>     electronic computers already exist. The mistake that computer
>     scientists and philosophers make is in assuming that the
>     development of actual computers must have been driven by the
>     availability of abstract models. That reflects their general
>     disdain for engineering and actual history. In reality, people
>     built computers first and worried about how to legitimate a
>     discipline around their study later.
>
>     An article called “How Aristotle Created Computer Science” would
>     be making an enormously different claim from one titled “How
>     Aristotle Created the Computer.” However, any such article would
>     need to be about the 1950s and 60s, that being when the various
>     intellectual and institutional things that were integrated to form
>     the foundations of computer science were actually assembled.
>
>     Tom
>
>     *From:*David C. Brock [mailto:dcb at dcbrock.net
>     <mailto:dcb at dcbrock.net>]
>     *Sent:* Thursday, March 23, 2017 4:21 PM
>     *To:* Thomas Haigh <thomas.haigh at gmail.com
>     <mailto:thomas.haigh at gmail.com>>
>     *Cc:* David Brock <dcb at dcbrock.net <mailto:dcb at dcbrock.net>>; Len
>     Shustek <len at shustek.com <mailto:len at shustek.com>>;
>     members at lists.sigcis.org <mailto:members at lists.sigcis.org>
>     *Subject:* Re: [SIGCIS-Members] The latest inventor of the computer
>
>     But couldn’t one argue that computer science owes a huge debt to
>     philosophy, particularly foundations of mathematics and formal
>     logic? My impression is that debt is under-paid and not that
>     widely appreciated.
>
>         On Mar 23, 2017, at 4:48 PM, Thomas Haigh
>         <thomas.haigh at gmail.com <mailto:thomas.haigh at gmail.com>> wrote:
>
>         Better than the title, perhaps, but everything is relative.
>
>         To be fair, the article is doubling down on a version of
>         computer history that is quite popular, particularly among
>         non-historians. Given the reach of Davis’ book, not to mention
>         Hofstadter, I’m not sure that all this is as unusual approach
>         as the opening implies. My views on all this are on record in
>         the CACM article “Actually, Turing Did Not Invent The
>         Computer.”http://www.tomandmaria.com/Tom/Writing/CACMActuallyTuringDidNotInventTheComputer.pdf
>         <http://www.tomandmaria.com/Tom/Writing/CACMActuallyTuringDidNotInventTheComputer.pdf>
>
>         If you believe Copeland, Davis, and others who think that
>         Turing invented the so-called "stored program" computer in
>         1936, then why not cut out the middle man? Going up the chain
>         and handing the whole thing to Aristotle is only slightly more
>         of a stretch. Dixon clearly does believe the Davis/Copeland
>         version:
>
>         In contrast to Shannon’s paper, Turing’s paper is highly
>         technical. Its primary historical significance lies not in its
>         answer to the decision problem,  but in the template for
>         computer design it provided along the way….
>
>         Turing showed how a program could be stored inside a computer
>         alongside the data upon which it operates. In today’s
>         vocabulary, we’d say that he invented the “stored-program”
>         architecture that underlies most modern computers. [skipping
>         quote from Davis] This was the first rigorous demonstration
>         that any computing logic that could be encoded in hardware
>         could also be encoded in software. The architecture Turing
>         described was later dubbed the “Von Neumann
>         architecture” — but modern historians generally agree it came
>         from Turing, as, apparently, did Von Neumann himself.
>
>         Asserting that "modern historians generally agree" that the
>         von Neumann architecture came from Turing’s paper seems like a
>         rather dubious claim to me. Particularly if you read Turing’s
>         paper and look for a von Neumann architecture in it. At the
>         Early Digital workshop in January I raised the question
>         explicitly with a fairly good sampling of “modern historians”
>         and nobody present supported the idea.
>
>         Another exaggeration: “Turing joined a secret unit at
>         Bletchley Park, northwest of London, where he helped design
>         computers that were instrumental in breaking German codes.”
>         Bombes weren’t computers, and Turing didn’t help to design
>         Colossus (which personally I don’t think was a computer
>         either, but that’s more controversial).
>
>         People in the comments section seem to like it, but in an
>         unusually highbrow example of internet discourse are calling
>         out for more attention to the anitkythera device, Chrysippus,
>         Pierce, Polish bombe creators, Thomas Aquinas, etc. Nobody
>         seems to be objecting to the Turing claim, though someone does
>         take the opportunity to insult Ada Lovelace.
>
>         Best wishes,
>
>         Tom
>
>         -----Original Message-----
>         From: Members [mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org
>         <mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org>] On Behalf Of Len
>         Shustek
>         Sent: Thursday, March 23, 2017 3:11 PM
>         To:members at lists.sigcis.org <mailto:members at lists.sigcis.org>
>         Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] The latest inventor of the computer
>
>         We're fully engaged in the invention of email, but we haven't
>         had any new inventors of the computer in a while. The Atlantic
>         is helping with that: "How Aristotle Created the Computer".
>
>         https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/03/aristotle-computer/518697/
>         <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/03/aristotle-computer/518697/>
>
>         The article is rather better than its title.
>
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