The Digital Cathedrals Of Our Time

Mar 12 2012 @ 7:21pm

George Dyson's new book, Turing’s Cathedral, tells the story of the "proto-hackers" such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann, who built the first computer. Dyson explains how they envisioned the world we live in today:

In Turing’s 1950 paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," he argued that when we build intelligent machines, we will not be creating souls but building the mansions for the souls that God creates. When I first visited Google, right about the time it went public, I walked around and saw what they were doing and realized they were building a very large distributed AI, much as Turing had predicted. And I thought, my God, this is not Turing’s mansion—this is Turing’s cathedral. Cathedrals were built over hundreds of years by thousands of nameless people, each one carving a little corner somewhere or adding one little stone. That’s how I feel about the whole computational universe. Everybody is putting these small stones in place, incrementally creating this cathedral that no one could even imagine doing on their own.

Francis Spufford marvels at the mastery of both intellectual and technical skill involved:

[N]o other book about the beginnings of the digital age brings to life anything like so vividly or appreciatively the immense engineering difficulty of creating electronic logic for the first time; of creating originally, and without a template, the pattern of organisation which has since become absolutely routine, and been etched on silicon at ever smaller micron-distances in chip foundries. The very word "foundry" insists that logic is a commodity, a material, the steel of the information age. But it didn't start like that. It started as an elaborate, just-possible accomplishment, requiring both conceptual brilliance and ingenious hands-on tinkering. 

You can read an excerpt from Turing’s Cathedral here.