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A look into Turing's Cathedral with George Dyson

George Dyson speaks to TechRepublic contributor Nicole Bremer Nash about some of the computing pioneers featured in his book Turing's Cathedral.

TechRepublic: What do you hope to do with Turing's Cathedral? Dyson: It's a lot like having a child; you cannot predict what that child is going to do. It is very strange to have worked more or less in a complete vacuum for 10 years, writing this thing. It's like writing a novel even though it's based in fact and truth, it's up to the writer to sort of put together the story. So now it's written, and you can't predict what people will think when they read it...boy people think different things than what you thought when you wrote it. I tried to write a good story that in a way is a memorial to the people who did this amazing work. In that sense, my happiest moment was recently getting a message from one of the original engineers. He's 91, can't travel, but he really loved the book. He loved the way it was printed and the design. There are just a few of those people left, so in a way I'm just trying to pass on this eyewitness story. But beyond that, who knows? TechRepublic: As a child, how aware of the computer project were you? Dyson: Julian Bigelow who was the lead engineer, their machine was built largely of war surplus stuff. Julian was a scavenger, so he would buy a big pile of stuff and take what they needed. The rest, they put in a barn that a few of us, 8 year old kids, knew how to sneak into. At that time, electronics were fascinating to kids. So sneaking into the barn was a lot of fun, and that's how I became aware of what was going on. When I was a little kid, the machine was still running but it had become routine, so it was sort of mythology that we knew they had built one of the first computers. Julian Bigelow's daughter was actually my sister, Esther's, best friend so we had a close relationship with them. To me as a little boy, when you went over to the Bigelow's house, there was all this stuff, and I had a lot of admiration for him. This guy deserves a lot of credit; somebody had to build this thing and it was him. TechRepublic: What was your favorite part of the book project? Dyson: *laughs* Getting it finished. My favorite part was discovering things, these papers that I had no idea if they would be there or not. Like, when John von Neumann's daughter invited me to Michigan, saying there were some papers I might be interested in, it could have been disappointing. But in this case, it was beyond comprehension; she had a filing cabinet with all the correspondence between Johnny (von Neumann) and (his wife) Klàra. Without Klàra's voice, her journals, we wouldn't have a story. Her journals filled in so many missing parts. For me, that was finding treasure. And that happened several times, finding Bigelow's papers and papers from the Institute. All this scattered stuff that people had. Hopefully the strength of the book is that it really is based on a lot of previously unfound, un-archived material. TechRepublic: What is the most important aspect of Turing's Cathedral the book? Dyson: Just telling those stories of the people, whose stories really aren't known, and I tried to capture them and put them together in context. Some of it is so improbable; you couldn't make this stuff up. TechRepublic: If what we are building is a cathedral for souls that God creates (per Turing), what exactly are the building blocks and what exactly are the souls? Dyson: Well, the bricks are all these computers, and all this code that people are writing. And where the soul comes from, we don't know. That's deep philosophical or religious speculation; it depends on what your beliefs are. If you believe in a God that puts souls into people, why not put souls into something else, but I don't really go there, I just leave that as speculation. TechRepublic: Does this mean that computers will eventually become fully intelligent as opposed to artificial intelligence? Dyson: I generally leave the AI discussion alone, but it's possible that they already have, and how would we know? How is that measured? It will still be dependent on humans for the hardware; it won't replace humans, but it will become something bigger than it currently is. For the record, I do NOT believe in autonomous AI. I think we are nowhere near a robot that will be intelligent in that way...we are talking about a whole system, an intelligent digital universe. TechRepublic: You suggest that software firms hire biologists -- do you foresee a new education and career track that combines biology with programming? Dyson: I don't think we need to invent anything new, we just need to make it more two-way. There is a very strong relationship between biology and computing, but it's mainly biologists being incredibly successful in applying computers to biology. I'm just saying if you have a software firm with 3.000 programmers, you should hire perhaps one or two biologists who can look at what a large software company is doing in a biological sense, and probably makes themselves quite useful. A lot of techniques used in biology could be very well applied to computing. TechRepublic: If you could pick one lesson for computer programmers to take from biology, what would it be? Dyson: Well, there are more than one, but the most obvious one would be template based addressing, which is how we address information in biology; we don't address it in a numerical address space, you ask for the next molecule that matches a template and there's no reason not to do that in computing. It's kind of how (search engines) work, is by matching templates. I think if people writing code were more cognizant of that, it might move things forward.


If you have an opportunity to see Dyson speak, it is worth going. Many of the photos that accompany his discussion are in the book, but Dyson gives anecdotes that really bring the characters in the images (and the book) to life for the reader. If you have an opportunity, ask him about another of his interests: kayaks.

Thank you to Mr. Dyson for the interview. My review of Turing's Cathedral will publish in TechRepublic's Geekend blog within a couple of weeks.

Check out the TechRepublic gallery about the Alan Turing exhibit to learn more about Turing's theories on computing, and see photos of some of the vintage computers discussed in Turing's Cathedral.

Disclosure: Esther Dyson is a former CNET employee. TechRepublic and CNET are CBS Interactive sites.


Nicole Bremer Nash is Director of Content and Social Media for HuTerra, where she uses SEO and social media to promote charitable organizations in their community-building and fundraising efforts. She enjoys volunteering, arts and crafts, and conduct...