Computer birthdays

Today is 202th birthday of the difference engine — Charles Babbage’s concept for the world’s first automated digital computer. Intriguingly, today is also the 73rd birthday of UNIVAC I, the world’s first general purpose electronic business computer.

Was this part of some coherent march forward of history, or just a random walk through time? The latter theory is supported by the fact that today is also the 186th birthday of Andrey Markov. The evidence speaks for itself.

If that does not convince you of the chaotic nature of reality, today is also the birthday of He Who Must Not Be Elected. I am being circumspect here because I learned from Harry Potter that it is better not to speak the names of demons of chaos and destruction.

Even demons that have birthdays and social security numbers.

If garages become portals

Fast forward to a future when all the cars are self-driving. Those future automobiles will really be more like a kind of highly granular train service.

So it is quite likely that they won’t sit in garages waiting to be used, since that would be quite inefficient. Rather, they will be deployed as needed. When they are done taking one set of passengers somewhere, they will be put into immediate service ferrying somebody else.

And that means houses will no longer need garages. Yet there are millions of houses in existence with garages attached. Whatever will become of all those garages?

One possibility is that they will be converted into portals, places people will go to have immersive experiences of co-location with friends, family and business associates. In this scenario, Zoom meetings will evolve into something resembling the Star Trek Holodeck.

That may or may not happen. But it would be nice if it did, if only because it would be nice not to need to tear down all those garages.

Rush hour brain drain

I was in a car during rush hour, and I thought about all of the drivers in the cars around me. Each driver was focusing a major part of their attention on following the car in front of them without screwing up. Which is important, of course.

But it’s only important in the context of a system whereby driving is the only practical way to get from one place to another on the roads. Let’s imagine for a moment that there was some reasonable alternative.

Suppose, for sake of argument, that all cars were self-driving, and that the people in those cars could focus their attention on whatever they wanted to. That would free up several hours a day per person per car.

If you add up all of that collective brain activity, it represents an enormous potential resource. Right now that resource is being pretty much squandered.

Even if you discount the quality of life issues, there might be some reasonable way to measure the economic impact of recovering all of that potentially productive brain time. I suspect that you would end up with an extremely high financial value.

When we measure the potential positive impact on the economy of any transition to self-driving cars, it might make sense to factor that in. If we did so, a world of self-driving cars might start to look like a very good deal indeed.

After chatbots

There is, understandably, a lot of excitement these days about chatbots. They seem magical (although one quickly learns their limitations), and major companies such as Apple and Google are embracing them in the user interface.

But there is something counterintuitive about a future in which we rely on chatbots. Over time, the most successful technologies are the ones that do not require our attention. Think for a moment about your kitchen appliances, plumbing, home HVAC system, phone switching network, and many other subsystems that you use every day.

In the long run, the successful support technologies are the ones that we don’t need to think about at all. They do what we want without requiring us to focus our attention on them.

I suspect that after this temporary focus on chatting with computers, things will move on. Our AI-enhanced computers will get better at figuring out what we want without us needing to continually spell things out for them.

Eventually we will start to forget that our computers are continually providing us with high quality AI support. And that will be the sign that they are doing a great job.

Geography is destiny — or is it?

I’ve lived in various places — sometimes in the countryside, other times in the heart of Manhattan. In some years I had a suburban existence, and I spent one long lovely stretch of time living near the beach in Rio de Janeiro.

I believe that these different environments have drawn out different aspects of my personality. When I am a country mouse, I am definitely not the same as when I am a city mouse.

One thing that I am curious about how permanent these changes are. When we move to a different place — desert to mountain, hot to cold, urban to forest — does that create long term changes in our personality? Or do is the opposite true: Do we quickly morph our inner being to match our environs?

I wonder whether anyone has done any long term studies to work out the answer to this question.

Shakespeare and language

I love watching plays by Shakespeare, especially if performed by great actors. I will often go onto YouTube just to watch a scene by one of the greats — Olivier, Dench, Gielgud or Jacobi, to name a few.

And I have often pondered the effect of the language. Shakespeare was writing his plays more than four centuries ago. Needless to say, the English language has evolved quite a bit since Elizabethan times.

On the one hand, this language difference can create a barrier to comprehension for modern audiences. Although to be fair, in the hands of a great actor, Shakespeare’s prose is remarkably easy to understand.

But perhaps the very strangeness of the language is part of the appeal. All of those odd phrases and cadences create room for mystery. Audiences are, in a sense, invited to interpolate meanings of their own, in a way that might not be the case for a play written and performed in modern English.

Ironically, audiences of today may be experiencing the richness of Shakespeare’s language in a way that Elizabethans of his own day could not.

Sherlock Holmes, computer scientist

Today I spent quite a bit of time tracking down a software bug. The bug was puzzling because as far as I could see it was completely impossible — there was no way it could exist — yet there it was.

Then at some point I realized that if what I was looking at was impossible, then I must be looking in the wrong place. So I started looking in completely different places, and eventually I found the true culprit — and promptly fixed the bug.

I realized at that point that Sherlock Holmes had figured all of this out a long time ago. He said, and I quote “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

I am pretty sure he was talking about debugging computer programs — or something very much like it.

Time machine

I got together today with a dear old friend whom I had not seen in decades. We spent hours happily catching up and remembering old times together.

And at some point it occurred to me that a time machine is not just something that you find in science fiction.