Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson, 432 pages, Pantheon Random House, New York, 2012
George Dyson has written a hugely important book. Turing's Cathedral is the story of the creation of "the digital universe", an amorphous term but one critical, on a metaphorical level, to beginning to think deeply about the impact of the ongoing revolution of electronic computing. The "cathedral" was constructed by the confluence of the minds brought together by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton New Jersey at the end of World War II.
At one level it is the story of how the world's first stored program computer was created. In other words, the computer had an architecture that enabled it to store numbers that meant things and store other numbers that were instructions to do things. The computer could use the second set of numbers to perform operations on the first.
The result is a world of complexity that Dyson takes apart, organizes, and makes intelligible to those of us who are caught up in and care about these sorts of seemingly arcane things. We, the readers, benefit because, if we understand the evolutionary design of this cathedral correctly, we become enabled to tell our friends why they should also care about grasping the nuances that underlie this digital universe.
At a larger more metaphorical level - one from which George to his great credit does not shy away, as he describes the beginning of a process that is still underway and gaining speed for all intents and purposes, and asks: "What does all this mean?" The answer to this seldom-asked question is that we have inherited an ongoing process blurring the distinction between human intelligence and that of these machines. It is also one that, at an even more profound level, approaches not only the question of what intelligence is and what life is but also asks what is the relationship between the two?
What Does all this Mean?
For more than the past decade George has immersed himself in revisiting the primordial Petri-dish in which our present-day digital universe was catalyzed. He brings to the occasion a unique set of credentials, having been born in 1953 when both his parents were mathematicians at the Institute and had already been there for five years.
Looking back it seems almost preordained that when a bureaucrat in the Princeton Borough's School Board denied George's request to get his high school diploma early because he had not taken all the required gym courses, events were set in motion that seem to have made the remarkable edifice of Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson possible. It was probably about 1968 that he dropped out of school; moved to the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest; revived the engineering design of the Alaskan [...] the oceangoing canoes built by the local inhabitants in the 19th century to explore the Alaskan coast; and some years later wrote Darwin Among the Machines, a book that brings the intellectual concept behind the digital computer all the way back to the writings of Thomas Hobbes.
In a 2003 TED talk only put on the network in 2008, George explains how he went from the world of theoretical, mathematical ideas in his Darwin Among the Machines to an exploration of the archives of the von Neumann machine in the basement of Fuld Hall at the Institute. Enabled by a John von Neumann like intellectual curiosity, George brought to the table an approach ranging from 6 months of immersion in the log books of the first von Neumann machine-running from 1952 through 1958 when it was turned off, to a series of interviews he conducted with the creators. Using this immersion in what 50 years later seemed like the primordial soup of these events -- murky and barely comprehensible to most of us -- he weaves a fascinating and compelling tale of how the "Michelangelo" of the digital age, John von Neumann gathered together the half-dozen critical people necessary to complete and bring into physical reality the machine and put it through its paces. With only 5 kB of memory they modeled everything from the miniscule time scale of the ignition of thermonuclear fusion to the human scale of understanding the boundaries between mathematics and machine intelligence that became computational science and ended finally with the cosmic scale of climate and weather.
The Mind of John Von Neumann
It is impossible to pigeonhole George's work, which is as vast as its subject, that is the digital universe. But if one were to attempt to do so at a human level, then one has to point out that it is a study not of Alan Turing but rather one of the mind of John von Neumann. This was a mind that ranged through mathematics as a descriptive language of the processes of movement from the subatomic level to a cosmic level. It was a mind that could take a particular description and gather the human resources that is the biochemical-based intelligence necessary to build human scale physical machines that could explore this universe. It was a universe under girded or described by mathematical language in such a way that human intelligence would have the opportunity to use these machines to change the very concept and operation of time needed to understand the complex processes that are currently governing the operation of the culture and society in which they live.
George, explores, in a way that I have seen no one else even attempt, the boundaries between human and machine intelligence on a global scale. Furthermore, he asks in a way that I don't think anyone else has asked - what does all this mean? What he has written is certainly not just a history.
"Turing's Cathedral" refers primarily to Google and only secondarily to Alan Turing. It is the analogy that occurred to George during his 2005 visit to the GooglePlex. He sees Google as the company that, far more so than any other, has sought to carry out the steps of gathering, organizing and updating the Barricelli like strings of meaningful code that gathered together and arrange them in a global architecture of a scope beyond anything ever attempted. It has become the foundation of a global mind. It appears to be an example of an experiment to ascertain the limits and possibilities underlying a machine of the size and scope that could demonstrate whether the world could be treated as Turing machine itself. And the Cathedral concept comes from the process of tracking the process of all this. From its origins in the writings of Thomas Hobbes all the way up to and including the new kinds of computers which George terms "analogue" and were involved in enabling the man machine interface behind Web 2.0 - all of this is a process of almost incomprehensible breath, depth and complexity. A process that has involved many artisans over a period of centuries in a manner reminiscent of the building of the medieval cathedrals.
George very clearly recognizes that this is an ongoing process and one that is encompassing new architectures and new forms of addressable memory to enable the machines to keep pace with the complexity of the total universal existence that they explore. He closes with the parable of a fairytale called The Tale of the Big Computer: a Vision written in 1966 by Hannes Alfven, the Swedish physicist.
Incredibly enough, close to a half century ago Alfvin had imagined a world in which the boundary between machine and human intelligence became blurred and then eventually erased, rendering humans superfluous.
There undoubtedly is a field of interaction out there that lies somewhere between the speed of electrons, the complexity of networks and whatever is meant by "life" and by "intelligence." George explores this in a fascinating way. As far as I know, he is the only one to have so far attempted such an exploration at a level comprehensible to a non-mathematician.
What is Meant by Life and Intelligence
It is these elements that I find more important than the history of the events leading to the development of the architecture of the von Nuemann machine. This was a machine which interestingly enough was completely open source in its design and copied at approximately 10 additional locations spread across the world in the next several years before other humans, not surprisingly, saw the opportunity for riches and added their proprietary bottlenecks to the foundation of the basic cathedral. But now the task is to deal with von Nuemann's inheritance that rests in the chemical soup of the human brain and use it intelligently in dealing with the rest of the universe.
Subroutines have sprouted all over but they seem to be hardening into fortresses designed to nurture their own point of view. Furthermore we have algorithms that when put into use by blindingly fast machines in so-called high-speed trading programs -- like the sorcerer's apprentice --seemed destined to escape from our control. As I see it, the major problem is how to enable groups of human minds to cooperate with each other in dimensions that these minds select in order to be sustainable and environmentally feasible.
From my immersion in the over the past 72 hours in George's book, I can add to his over all perspective from my own personal knowledge of the growing emergence of medically implanted neural intelligence that, via cell phones and the work of people like Patrick Soon Shiong is likely to develop a tsunami of its own that sweeps through society. But also on a more cosmic scale is the work of hundred gigabit per second and terabit per second global optical networks combined with the coordination of global scientists in the use of an optically-based global grid is that may be foreshadowing a kind of global Google on steroids so to speak. One about which I have recently written but one, which I don't think is adequately understood even by those who have and are continuing to create it.
From one point of view, the overriding question on which the fate of humanity depends is: How can humans use this globally interconnected grid, this global mind to extract a sustainable path of evolution? We need an evolutionary path, one which could be a sustainable and relatively stable ongoing development rather than the current chaotic one of angry babbling groups set against each other, each in control of their own levers of power and set on speeding us toward an abyss.
The questions raised by the seed that George has planted are legion. For example: Is there a next stage of development of the technology that would enable the selection by groups of like minds in something like the "occupy" movements to communicate with each other more effectively and adopt a more kind and effective way of living?
Turing's Cathedral is a portrayal at a meta level the interactions of a group of brilliant minds brought together by the stress of global war who - led by von Neumann built a machine that could enable the exploration of the fuzzy boundaries between mathematics, physics, chemistry and "life". George's book helps us to see more clearly that, at a meta level, this is the meaning behind the construction of the IAS computer. He does not attempt to answer the unanswerable questions of what exactly is life. From what he writes, I suspect that it could be considered as a matter of scale. Life among strings of DNA is different from that of life among cells, which is vastly different from what the brain and nervous system can do when instantiated inside a body. Therefore, human brain is utterly different from the machine brain and George does not for a moment suggest that it is not.
Nevertheless what these men and women unleashed can perhaps be grasped best in a metaphorical sense. An understanding the totality can only be approached by inviting those of us involved in exploring the meaning of the current stellar burst of creation to step back, pause and contemplate. Turing's Cathedral can be approached telling of a creation myth that invites the reader to step back and contemplate the meaning of life and the IAS machine on a universal scale.
As our civilization races onward into increasing complexity and gathers more and more signs of potential collapse reaching the limits described by [...] writings on the fate of earlier civilizations, I hope that current architects and readers of Turing's Cathedral will step back and contemplate what they are doing from the global level of reflections that George Dyson lays out in this book. The Internet has brought what von Neumann catalyzed to an entirely new "state."