Thursday, December 29, 2011

Soviet computer is 60

Engadget reports that the, "MESM project, which just marked the 60th anniversary of its formal recognition by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The project, headed by Institute of Electrical Engineering director Sergey Lebedev, was born in a laboratory built from scratch amongst the post-World War II ruins of Ukrainian capital city, Kyiv, by a team of 20 people, many of whom took up residence above the lab. Work on MESM -- that's from the Russian for Small Electronic Calculating Machine -- began toward the end of 1948. By November 1950, the computer was running its first program. The following year, it was up and running full-time."
    This is interesting because after writing my chapter on WWII computing I was wondering about what other countries were doing computationally. Konrad Zuse, in Germany, is well known, but little seems to be published about Russian, Italian or Japanese computing during or just after the war. It seems unlikely that the Allies had the field of computing all to them selves. Wikipedia has this article on post war Soviet bloc computing, but I can find nothing about Japanese or Italian attempts or earlier Russian ones. If you have any information please let me know.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Jack Goldman, Founder of Xerox PARC, Dies

Jack Goldman
Jack Goldman, in 1969, proposed that Xerox should have a research centre, just like the other big tech companies IBM and AT&T. He made the decision to locate it on the west coast, near Stanford University, and far away for Xerox's head office on the east coast. His decision was inspired and Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (or PARC) became a magnet for the techno-hippies of the Bay Area. PARC it was estimated soon employed 50% of the computer scientists in the US.
    Researchers at PARC went on to invent the graphical user interface (GUI), the mouse, networked computers (the Ethernet), postscript, the laser printer and object orientated programming. If you are using a computer today it can can trace much of its origin back to Xerox PARC. You can read the full story in Chapter 6 Deadheads and Propeller Heads of my book. The complete story of PARC is fascinating and is told in detail in Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michale Hiltzik. Why Xerox didn't become the most powerful IT company in the world, bigger than Microsoft or IBM is a moot point. Some say incompetent, visionless, executives. But, hindsight gives us 20/20 vision and rather simply a photocopier company just couldn't grasp a future dominated by inexpensive software and computers.

PARC still exists and its website is here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brazilian Computer Museum

I just came across a Computer Museum in San Paulo, Brazil because its curator asked me for a copy of The Universal Machine. If you are in the vicinity these holidays it looks worth a visit.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Seasons Greetings to everyone who has stumbled across or followed this blog during 2011. The book "The Universal Machine" is now off at the publishers in Germany. This blog will continue in 2012 to post items about the history and future of computing and will of course keep you posted on the book's publication.

[If you're thinking, "How sad, blogging on Christmas Day!" don't worry; the blog has a "schedule" tool so posts can be written in advance and are scheduled to be posted at a certain time and date.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Other half of Babbage's brain found!

Charles Babbage & half his brain
If you follow this blog you'll know that earlier in the year I visited the London Science Museum to see the replica of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No.2. It was fascinating, but I was surprised to see that they had half of Babbage's brain pickled in a jar on display. Why I wondered did they half half of his brain? It didn't seem to serve any educational purpose. Also, where was the other half? This continued to occasionally trouble me. The mystery has been solved thanks to Wikipedia; the other half is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. I don't know if it's on display there (perhaps somebody can tell us). I haven't visited the Hunterian Museum, but I did visit the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh in August, which was fascinating. A little macabre and ghoulish but very interesting.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Computer History Museum - Steve Jobs

2011 will of course be remembered, amongst other things, as the year in which Steve Jobs died. The outpouring of public grief from around the world was similar to the passing of John Lennon, Princess Diana or Michael Jackson. Over a million tributes were left on Apple's memorial webpage and fans (for that is what we must call them) left tributes and offerings at Apple stores around the globe.
    The Computer History Museum has a very informative tribute to Steve Jobs if you still need more information about this remarkable man. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

iPhone 5 predictions

Since it's near the end of the year it's a good time to make some predictions for 2012. Remind me to come back next year to see if my predictions were correct.
    Of course there will be an iPhone 5 released in 2012. This would fit the now historic pattern of releases: 3, 3S, 4, 4S, 5. The iPhone 5 will obviously support the new 4G cellular wireless standard. It's a bit of a shame that the iPhone numbering has got out of sync with the technology but I guess we'll not be moving on from 4G anytime soon so we'll not notice for long.
    Many pundits are predicting that the iPhone 5 will have a larger 4" screen as shown in the mock-up to the right. I predict this will not happen. The iPhone's 3.5" screen is no accident. It's big enough and not too small. I think people really don't understand Apple if they think they will bring out bigger screens for the iPhone and smaller screens for the iPad. Their dimensions were very carefully selected to be fit for purpose. Apple don't need to get into a "my screen's bigger than yours" battle but they do want to keep life simple for their app developers. That said if the iPhone 5 is to have a different design, as we'd expect from the new numeral designator, then it's hard to see how they can improve on the gorgeous (IMHO) iPhone 4. Slightly slimmer, slightly lighter perhaps. An A6 quad-core processor, almost certainly. Better screen resolution, but what's the point, it's already perfect. A better camera? Again, isn't 8 Mega pixels enough? I think you can see that after four years of rapid progress, smartphone hardware evolution is possibly reaching a plateau. We just don't need more grunt and higher and higher resolutions; better battery life, RFID they would be useful.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Punch cards

Babbage's punch cards
Science Museum, London
Most people today don't remember punch cards, but for decades they were an important means of programming computers. Though I never used them, my first computer lab still had card punch machines and card readers, and some "old timers" still used them. Charles Babbage first thought of using them for his Analytical Engine, both to input programs and store data. He got the idea of course from the Jacquard Loom that used punch cards to input complex lace designs into lace weaving looms.
    Though not used by modern computers, punch cards are still used by knitting machines to input designs, as you can see from the card below.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Heinz Nixdorf Museum - Turing Exhibition

Turing's statue, Bletchley Park
If you're in or near Germany you may be interested in the special exhibition "Eminent & enigmatic - 10 aspects of Alan Turing," which is opening at the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Paderborn from January and will run for the entire year.
Information about all the events taking place globally to commemorate Turing centenary can be found at the Alan Turing Year website.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Google sponsors Turing centenary exhibition

Good news. Google is supporting two exhibitions exploring the history of computing at the Science Museum in London. The first will celebrate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, the English mathematician and WWII codebreaker who is considered the “father” of computing. His theoretical idea, the Turing Machine, is the foundation of the modern computer. The exhibition is intended to inspire a new generation of scientists and innovators and will showcase how the legacy of Turing's universal machine is shaping our future.
My book should be the perfect companion to the exhibition.
The second exhibition in 2014 will showcase communications technology.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bill Gates arrested... Albuquerque, New Mexico after a traffic violation in 1977. Here's his police mugshot.
Now the book's finished I thought I'd post some entertaining snippets from the book on the blog. I was looking for a public domain photo of the young Bill Gates - he was 22 in this photo. This photo is a "public record" under New Mexico law and hence is in the public domain. Micro-Soft (yes with a hyphen) was then based in Albuquerque to be close to MITS, which made the Altair kit computer for which Micro-Soft was making BASIC. The thing I love about this photo is how happy Gates looks. Is he thinking, "My father is a really wealthy lawyer." or, "I'm going to be the richest man in the world." Check out that shirt collar as well.

Friday, December 16, 2011


It's finished! I've just finished the book, I'm uploading it to Apple's MobileMe cloud drive so my publisher can download a 114MB compressed archive containing: a preface, table of contents, 14 chapters, further reading, two appendices, all the images in the highest resolution possible (with their copyright status) and some ideas for the book cover. To be honest I don't want to let it go. I know I could improve it and there'll still be a few errors in it.
    Now it's over to the team at Springer.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Google make big donation to Bletchley Park Trust

A dilapidated WWII hut at Bletchley Park
Google have donated £550,000 towards the match funding needed for the Bletchley Park Trust to embark on the first stage of a £15 million project to transform the site into a world-class heritage and education centre.  The Heritage Lottery Fund announced a £4.6 million grant for the Bletchley Park Trust in October 2011.  It is a pre-condition that in order to draw down the funding to commence the current stage of the £15 million project, the Trust must have raised the match funding required to complete the package.
    As you can see from the photo I took at Bletchley earlier in the year there is plenty of work needed to restore and maintain the old WWII huts were Alan Turing and others broke the Nazi Enigma & Lorenz codes. You can make a donation by following this link:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New website - digital promotion

I now have a website for The Universal Machine, ready for publicizing the book when it's published next year. At the moment there's not much there - just the book's Twitter feed and a feed from this blog. Once the book is published there will be purchasing information, some videos and podcasts and reviews of the book (hopefully good ones).
The URL for the website is:

I now have all the elements in place for the digital promotion of the book: website, Twitter account, Facebook page, Google+ pageblog and an author's page.

Monday, December 12, 2011

T minus 5

T minus 5 and counting. The manuscript is being delivered to the publisher on Friday so I'm into the final week and the final revisions. I've been sourcing copyright free pictures for the book and once again Wikipedia has been a godsend. Nearly all of their images are under a Creative Commons licence or in the public domain and the copyright is very clearly explained for each image. That is so useful as it means my publisher can be certain they're not infringing anyone's copyright. Sourcing dozens of images legally would have been a nightmare before Wikipedia.
    Probably the most amusing is one of a young Bill Gates; he's posing for a police mugshot taken in Albuquerque, New Mexico police in 1977 after a traffic violation. Gates looks like he's really enjoying himself in the photo. Perhaps he's thinking, "my father's a wealthy lawyer." Check it out on Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Turing - Breaking the Code

The Oxford Times has published a preview of the play Breaking the Code about the life and death of Alan Turing which will soon be having a five week run in Oxford. If you're in the vicinity it sounds like it will be good. The  article also describes how the playwright Hugh Whitemore recalls how he received a call from a Hollywood film producer, offering a very large sum for the film rights. Untold riches beckoned, but: “Just two things: I don’t want this guy to be a faggot, and for God’s sake cut out all the mathematics!” 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

QI XL Turing and the Apple Logo

There was a large section devoted to Alan Turing in the BBC show QI XL (series 1 episode 13, broadcast Dec 2 2011), which features Stephen Fry and a panel of guests answering difficult but interesting questions. The theme of the recent show was "intelligence." During this there was a question on Enigma which was used as a lead into Alan Turing. Stephen Fry brought up the subject of Apple's logo (an Apple with a bite out of it) allegedly being in honour of Alan Turing, who died after purposefully eating an apple poisoned with cyanide. Stephen Fry recalls asking Steve Jobs (they were friends) if the rumours were true. Jobs replied, “It isn't true, but God we wish it were!” So finally and officially, right from the horses mouth as it were, this rumour is debunked. However, there is no harm in remembering Turing when you look at Apple's logo.
The episode of QI XL can be viewed in the BBC iPlayer if you live in the UK.

    Update: The British Comedy Guide now confirms this and it has appeared on Turing's Wikipedia entry.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Google+ vs. Facebook

There's been an increasing number of articles from the digerati along the lines of will Google+ beat Facebook? At first sight this seems a ridiculous proposition; Facebook has 800 million and growing users compared to Google+'s 50 million and growing - no competition right. Well perhaps not. Google+'s great strength is that it is becoming integrated into everything you do on the web. For example if you use YouTube you'll have seen that it's interface has changed and now Google+ is tightly integrated into it. Picasa, Google's photo management service, will undergo a similar refit in a few weeks. The idea is that as you go about your digital life you'll never be more than a click away from Google+ and that it will constantly be recommending stuff to you.
    By comparison Facebook's weakness is that you have to be inside Facebook to get any interaction from you friends. Now clearly some people virtually live inside Facebook but most of us don't and therefore Google+ is a more natural model since it will basically follow us around the web. Moreover Google+'s "Circles," despite what Zuckerberg may say, is a more natural way to manage ones online relationships in comparison to Facebook's one size fits all approach. Facebook know's this which is why it rushed out its "Groups" feature.
    As Google continues to integrate Google+ into its services I'll be watching it and Facebook with interest.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Challenge and Promise of Artificial Intelligence (audio)

On Nov 5 The Computer History Museum presented The Challenge and Promise of Artificial Intelligence. Dr. Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research and Dr. Peter Norvig of Google discussed the past, present, and future of artificial intelligence, moderated by KQED's Tim Olson. The talk includes everything from machine learning to data-driven science, the world of perception, speech recognition, robotics, self-driving cars, and even a computer called Watson. The talk was broadcast on KQED radio and an mp3 can be heard here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The writing process

I'm into almost the last week of writing The Universal Machine and I've been asked about my writing process. So here, in general terms, is how I have approached the writing.
    For each chapter I've thought about a general idea of what I want to include and eventually I sketch this down as a rough outline or plan. During this time I'll be reading books about the subject material and using online reference sources. If it's a book I'll use those Post-It tabs to mark pages with useful content on. If its on online resource I use Evernote to clip parts of it. Then once the reading is finished I'll start writing using the marked parts of the books and Evernote as my reference sources. Wikipedia is used to check facts and add details. It's great for facts but very poor for adding colour which has to come from biographies or first-hand recollections. Once a chapter is written I'll put it to bed and move on to something else. Then, I'll return and read/edit the chapter several times. Once I'm reasonably happy with the chapter it is emailed to a good friend who is a professional writer. He reads and picks up mistakes and makes suggestions for improvements. Each chapter is also sent out to one or more academics/specialists with an interest in computer history or specific subject areas to check the factual content and identify potential omissions.
    All of the returned chapters are edited to take into account the feedback and the chapters are then reread and edited over and over. I estimate that most chapters have been reread and edited at least a dozen times. I've been working on this over a year now and  I'll be sad when I finally package it up and send it to my publisher. I've had a great time writing this.

At what temperature do e-books burn?

Simon & Schuster have just announced that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is now, for the first time, officially available as an e-book. The 1953 dystopian novel is about a future American society where reading is outlawed and firemen start fires to burn books. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper (ie books burn). I wonder at what temperature a Kindle burns? Perhaps Bradbury should rewrite the story, so a new generation can appreciate it on a Kindle Fire.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sketchpad - almost 50 years old and still revolutionary

I came across this video on Google+ of Alan Kay presenting Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad (aka the Robot Draftsman). This was a revolutionary program written by Ivan Sutherland in 1963 for his PhD thesis that changed the way people interacted with computers. Sketchpad is  the ancestor of modern computer-aided drafting (CAD). The Graphical User Interface (GUI) was derived from Sketchpad (it was the first program to use a "window") as well as object oriented programming. Ivan Sutherland demonstrated with Sketchpad that computer graphics could be used for artistic and technical purposes in addition to showing a new method of human-computer interaction. Sutherland received the Turing Award (computing's highest honour) in 1988. 

 This video is an excerpt of a longer one here.  Sutherland's Ph.D. thesis from MIT was reprinted in 1980 as Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

60+ years of the modern computer

Manchester University's Dept of Computer Science maintains an excellent website celebrating its role over 60 years in developing the modern computer. In addition to lots of back ground materials there are some excellent videos including one by the BBC from 1948 about the Manchester Baby.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

IBM's cognitive computing initiative - SyNAPSE

Not content with winning Jeopardy with Watson IBM is now combining principles from nanoscience, neuroscience and supercomputing in a  cognitive computing initiative called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE). By reproducing the structure and architecture of the brain—the way its elements receive sensory input, connect to each other, adapt these connections, and transmit motor output—the SyNAPSE project  aims to emulate the brain's computing efficiency, size and power usage without being programmed.
    IBM say, "Today's computers are little better than calculators; ruled by the von Neumann architecture for over half a century, they use storage structures and programmable memory that scientists are endlessly aiming to improve. However, the human brain - the world's most sophisticated computer - can perform complex tasks rapidly and accurately using the same amount of energy as a 20 watt light bulb and consuming as much space as a 2 liter bottle of soda. Researchers at IBM and collaborating universities are working to build cognitive systems that can learn and perform complex tasks such as action, recognition and perception, while rivaling the low energy and power consumption of the human brain."
    The IBM SyNAPSE project website is here with lots more information and videos.

SyNAPSE: IBM Cognitive Computing Project - Overview

The thinking machine

Is this another in the series of computer science songs? Perhaps, or is it kinetic sculpture? Possibly both. "The 'Thinking Machine' is a ternary computer that outputs melodies formed by three sounds as resulting from the calculations. Whether binary or ternary, it is a computer in the terms of a Turing machine. In Thinking Machine the algorithm is fixed as a mechanical mechanism so it is not a versatile Turing machine or von Neumann type computer. However, like all computers Thinking Machine is a logical machine that can process code, and is an actual object that expresses discrete time within real time." 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Grant a pardon to Alan Turing

A new online petition to the British government is asking for a pardon for the conviction of Alan Turing It says:
    We ask the HM Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing for the conviction of 'gross indecency'. [...] A pardon can go to some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.
    Before you rush to sign what seems like a very worthy cause you should read John Graham-Cumming's reasons for not supporting the campaign. He was the person who organised the recent apology from the British government to Turing.
You can then decide if you want to support the new petition or not.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Excellent video about Universal Turing Machines

This short video gives and excellent overview of Universal Turing Machines and Alan Turing's inspired discovery that one machine can solve any problem that has become the origin of all modern computers. It features a short interview with Steve Wozniak amongst others.

Siri continues to amaze

Articles about Siri continue to appear in the tech blogs and publications as people increasingly start to recognise how important Siri is. It reportedly correctly understands commands about 9 times out of 10, which if you think about it is probably better than a person would. Siri also ask for confirmation and tells you if its not sure, which lets face it people often aren't so good at. Here is an interesting video clip comparing Microsoft's TellMe on Windows Phone 7 and Siri.
More articles are also appearing about the Apple iTV, which is rumoured to be in production in China. The addition of Siri to this as the primary means of interfacing with a TV could be amazingly powerful, which I've been predicting here since mid October.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Four degrees of separation

A recent study by The University of Milan and Facebook has shown that the old adage "6 degrees of separation" that connects any two people on the planet is not true. The new study of 69 billion Facebook friendships (the largest social network study ever) shows that 92% of us are connected  by only four degrees (five hops). Take a moment and think about this ... Choose anybody, Barack Obama perhaps; it is probable that a friend of a friend of yours, knows a friend of a friends of Obama's! The researcher also shows that within the same country most pairs of people are separated by only three degrees (four hops). They'll need to rename that Kevin Bacon game.

My favourite scientist - video

Here's a short video from the "My Favourite Scientist" series about Alan Turing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Computer Science songs #2

Thanks to Jörg Cassens (@cassens) who tweeted in response to the Halting Problem song "@driwatson one to see and I raise with the longest path (thanks to Felix:)"
The Longest Path
Very amusing. If I say, "keep the computer science songs coming please" will this blog be inundated with geek songs? Only one way to find out.

Britain's Greatest Codebreaker - review

Ed Stoppard plays Alan Turing
I watched the new Channel 4 doco on Alan Turing last night and here's my review. Let's be honest if you want to watch a documentary about Alan Turing you've not got much choice so you're likely to watch this one. First it's strengths; basing the dramatised reconstructions around Turing's sessions with psychiatrist Dr Franz Greenbaum works very well. This narrative device allows different aspects of Turing's life to be visited in a natural way; though what was actually said in those sessions must be pure speculation. The interviews with people who knew Turing, and with Greenbaum's daughters in particular, were a delight and really helped flesh him out. Ed Stoppard plays Turing very well; he doesn't have the stammer and ticks of Derek Jacobi's portrayal, but instead he plays with his fingers, bites his nails and looks both intelligent and troubled.
    I've been wondering what the documentary makers intention was; what they wanted the viewer to take from their efforts? I think they want us to get to know what drove Turing, where his genius sprung from and why he was eventually driven to suicide. It's always going to be hard to get inside a man about whom we know so little.  We are encouraged to believe that Turing's desire to excel in science sprang from his wish to live up to the expectations of his dead childhood sweet-heart Christopher Morcom. This may well be true. His desire to excel at code-breaking was driven by patriotic duty, something that would have been drummed in to him at public school. His desire to kill himself was brought upon by depression caused by his chemical castration and the increasing pressure he was coming under from a paranoid secret service obsessed with spies and Cambridge homosexuals. In the final scene you do wonder why Dr. Greenbaum didn't put Turing under suicide-watch.
    So what of Turing's great scientific achievements? The concept behind the Universal Turing Machine is brought across nicely in a long segment that features Steve Wozniak, amongst others, giving credit to Turing for inventing the computer. His work at Bletchely Park is somewhat glossed over; but let's be honest this aspect of his career has been well covered elsewhere and is what people already know Turing for if they know him at all. In contrast rather longer is spent on his later work on biological morphogenesis, which is likely to be new to most viewers. Turing is presented as a man who invented the idea of the computer, who cracked the German Naval Enigma codes, thereby winning WWII and saving millions of lives, and who invented the disciplines of artificial intelligence and bioinformatics - quite enough for one genius I think.
   If you want you can criticise this documentary for not explaining in detail how Enigma was cracked and not even mentioning the Lorenz cipher but that would be a different film. This one wants to tell us more about Turing the man and given that we know so little about his personal life it succeeds.

A song about Turing's Halting Problem

Once againa big thanks to The Turing Century for spotting this one - a song inspired by Turing's Halting Problem (no it doesn't play in a loop forever).

The Klein 3-Group - No Deciding

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The book is a physical reality

The Universal Machine

On Sunday April 4 2010 I started this blog; the first post was "Welcome." which said:
"Welcome to the blog of the writing of the Universal Tool
I've been writing a book, on and off, for several years now. The book is intended to be a popular science book about the history of computers. I'm a computer scientist by profession and so I've long had an interest in this subject.
   The idea of this blog is to encourage me to keep working on the book by being able to share both the process of writing it and elements from it with who ever decides to follow the blog of just drop by."

    Yesterday I printed out the entire book for the first time. It's a strange feeling seeing the book's manuscript sitting there on the table. Strange but good. Incidentally the blog has been very useful in writing the book. 

Britain's Greatest Codebreaker - documentary

Ed Stoppard plays Alan Turing
The new Channel 4 documentary about Alan Turing, Britain's Greatest Codebreaker has been aired on UK TV. It can be streamed from the 4onDemand website if you live in the UK or if you can persuade the website to believe you have a UK IP address. UK papers are all carrying reviews, like this one in the Independent.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Autonomous cars - sooner than you think

The US state of Nevada has just passed legislation  that would allow autonomous cars on it highways by March 2012. An operator of an autonomous vehicle would still need a current state driver’s license. The law defines an autonomous vehicle as “a car that uses artificial intelligence, sensors and GPS to coordinate itself without active intervention by a human operator.” The law also acknowledges that the driver does not need to be actively attentive if the car is driving itself. Without the law, inattentive driving would likely land you with some sort of reckless driving citation under the guise of previous laws.
The Stadtpilot autonomous car drives in Braunschweig, Germany

Why should we encourage the development of autonomous cars? Consider this, the US has lost 6,279 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Last year 33,000 people lost their lives in road traffic accidents in the US! The United Nations estimated in 2004 that 1.2 million people were killed and a further 50 million injured on the world’s roads. China recorded 96,000 deaths and India 105,000 traffic deaths. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of injury death amongst children worldwide, and even in the US they are the sixth leading preventable cause of death. Clearly, if we can do something to stop this carnage, we should. It turns out people are lousy drivers.

Why is Siri important?

As people get more used to the new iPhone 4S it seems that Siri, as I predicted back in early October in this blog, is becoming the stand out feature. People are reportedly buying the new iPhone 4S just because of Siri and some commentators are hailing a new revolution in how we interact with computers. By far the best article I've read about Siri is called Why is Siri important? by Brian Roemmele in In it he traces the origin of Siri back 40 years to DARPA funded work at SRI and describes how SIRI works in a better way than any other (non-technical) writer I've come across. Of particular relevance to people who are developing iOS apps is this excerpt:
    "Once one really understands how people will use Siri it is not too hard to see that quite a number of very popular apps and sadly some business plans may become redundant or perhaps less useful. The new model may not be apps as much as structured Cloud APIs to deliver data to Siri.  Over time it is perhaps easy to see the ecosystem that will develop around Siri and the APIs that are allowed to connect.  I am not at all predicting the end of apps as we know it in any way or form.  However I am predicting that we will see a Darwinian adaption to the new ecosystem Siri will create.  It will be of very high importance to see this trend developing and adjust business models accordingly. Perhaps the opportunities that will be available for Siri backend cloud APIs may be as large as the opportunity the iTunes app store has created." 

Monday, November 21, 2011

LEO - the automatic office (1957)

Whilst on the subject of the Lyons Electronic Office and its 60th birthday I came across this great archive video. It's a promotional video for Leo made in 1957. Yes the British were advertising office computers in 1957! It's a really wonderful look back into a different age.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

LEO celebrating the pioneers

Google's blog features a great article on LEO that includes a very interesting video, which interviews some of the people who developed and used LEO.
LEO Celebrating the Pioneers

Friday, November 18, 2011

LEO - worlds first business computer turns 60

The Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) is 60 years today. Commissioned by J. Lyons &Co., the once famous UK company that ran a nationwide chain of tea shops, LEO was first used in 1951 to calculate how much it cost to bake and distribute cakes. This was the first commercial use of a computer. The American Airlines ticketing system, which became SABRE, didn't go live until 1960. In fact in 1956, Lyons started doing payroll calculations for Ford UK using LEO's spare capacity; so they also invented IT outsourcing.  The Leo Computer Society maintains an interesting archive on this great British first!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Chinese Room

John Searle
The Turing Century blog has started a debate about the Turing Test for machine intelligence vs. John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment. Searle claims that his elegant thought experiment shows that computers can never think no matter how smart they appear as they are just manipulating symbols, which after all is all that a Turing machine does. My take on this is as follow, but first I'll explain the Chinese Room  in case you're not familiar with it. (Note: this is an exert from the final chapter of my book The Universal Machine)
    Imagine you are sitting in front of room with a locked door. You are a native Chinese speaker and you’re able to ask questions of the room by writing them down in Chinese characters on pieces of paper, which you post through a slot in the door. The room replies in Chinese by sending its written replies back through the slot. You spend time asking the Chinese Room factual questions and then progress to asking its opinions on the economy, politics the arts and you even ask it to tell you some jokes. All of its answers are perfect, just what you’d expect from an intelligent Chinese person. It has passed the Turing Test with flying colors – therefore it must be intelligent.
    Then Searle unlocks the door and shows you inside the Chinese Room. Inside waiting to receive questions is an Englishman who doesn’t speak or read Chinese. He takes each received question and identifies the Chinese characters from a big ledger and writes down their corresponding numbers. He then, in a complex and laborious process, cross-references the numbers with other ledgers and indices and eventually obtains more numbers from which he obtains new Chinese characters that make up his answer. He writes these characters down and posts them back through the door.

    Does the operator understand Chinese? The answer is obviously no. He’s just following a laborious mechanical process, a program. In fact he needn’t even know the characters make up a language called Chinese. Does the operator understand the questions? Again the answer must be no; he doesn’t even know they are questions because he doesn’t understand Chinese. Therefore the Chinese Room is not intelligent and never can be. It is, as Jefferson [a professor who clashed with Turing over machine intelligence] observed, just moving symbols around; there is no understanding.
    AI experts, including myself, have struggled with Searle’s simple thought experiment. It does seem to show that a universal machine by manipulating symbols can never be said to think. My take on this problem is to consider the example of flight. Do birds fly? Of course they do, not all birds, but most do and some do very well. Do planes fly? Yes they do, but they fly in a very different way to birds. Planes don’t have feathers and they don’t flap their wings, but they can fly great distances and carry much more weight than even the largest bird. Therefore, flight is something that birds and planes both do but by using different methods. Birds are living animals that have evolved to fly and planes are engineered artifacts; machines that we have designed to fly.
   Computers, like [IBM's] Watson, are machines that we have engineered to think. Watson isn’t made of flesh and bone and it doesn’t have a brain, but it appears to think, just not in the same way that we do. For some reason when it comes to intelligence and consciousness we are much more sensitive about the abilities of our creations. If we engineer a machine that performs as well as birds we proudly claim it flies but if we engineer a machine that performs as well as or better than people in a game show we doubt it’s thinking. I believe in the future the question of “do computers think?” will be one that most people will not even consider. We’ll just all take it for granted that computers act as if they are thinking and that’s good enough. Philosophers will still be arguing about this in the future and the religious will always believe that machines don’t have souls.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Full text of PM's apology to Alan Turing

I've been unable to find the full text of Gordon Brown's apology to Alan Turing online; lots of quotes from it, but not the full text. I visited Bletchley park recently and they have the original letter framed in a display; so I photographed it and have now transcribed it. The transcript is below the photos of the letter.

Remarks of the Prime Minister Gordon Brown
10 September 2009

This has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude that characterise the British experience. Earlier this year, I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against fascism and declared the outbreak of the Second World War.
So I am both pleased and proud that thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship: that of code-breaker Alan Turing.
Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.
In 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I am and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and so many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear of conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.
But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for this contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out European civilisation for hundreds of years.
It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry. You deserved so much better.
Gordon Brown

Action This Day! Save Bletchley Park

Hut 8 (right) where Alan Turing worked during WWII
"£1.7 million in match funding must be raised by the Bletchley Park Trust in order to unlock the £4.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the restoration of Bletchley Park. The crumbling Codebreaking Huts have been offered a lifeline by the HLF but it is a race against time to raise the funds needed to complete the investment package before they are lost to the nation forever.
When the Codebreakers wrote to Churchill, in October 1941, starved of resources to do their essential work, Churchill immediately ordered, “Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done”.
Exactly seventy years on we are repeating Churchill’s request. The Bletchley Park Trust has received tremendous support over the past few years but now a permanent solution is so close and we need public support more than ever. In broad terms each £1 from you will unlock £2.70 more from HLF."
The above is a direct quote from Bletchley Park's Action This Day! campaign to raise funds to restore Bletchley Park. If you've visited you'll know Bletchley is a huge rambling estate filled with dilapidated WWII buildings Only a handful of the buildings, like Hut 8 shown above, have been restored. Bletchley Park deserves better. You can donate via PayPal and once the target is reached your donation will unlock £4.6 million.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What a coincidence - Alan Turing & Alan Garner

I just learned that one of my favourite authors as a child, Alan Garner who wrote The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a magical fantasy story (think Harry Potter crossed with The Lord of the Rings) was a friend of Alan Turing. They used to run together in Manchester. He writes a nice piece in the Guardian stating that Turing was his hero.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ada Lovelace - the 1st computer programmer

Lady Ada Lovelace

An article in engadget today: Researchers begin work on Babbage Analytical Engine, hope to compute like it's 1837," commenting on a good story in the New York TimesIt Started Digital Wheels Turning claims that Ada Lovelace was the world's first computer programmer. She collaborated with Charles Babbage to translate Luigi Menabrea's description of Babbage's Analytical Engine from Italian into English. However they fell out over what should be included in the final paper and published separately; hers in Scientific Memoirs and his in The Philosophical Magazine.
    Ada's Sketch of the Analytical Engine was very well received, and her lengthy additional notes to Menabrea's original description gave her the freedom to muse on the Engine's more philosophical aspects. She comments that: "The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves... Supposing for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptation, the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent."
In her notes to the paper she describes an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It is considered the first algorithm written for implementation on a computer, but it is far from being a "program," more like pseudocode. Nonetheless, she was a remarkable lady and well deserves her honours.

[Note: a project called Plan28 is now underway to build a working Analytical Engine - the world's first steam-powered PC]