George Dyson speaks to TechRepublic contributor Nicole Bremer Nash about some of the computing pioneers featured in his book Turing's Cathedral.
In Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, historian George Dyson introduces readers to the eccentric, real-life characters who pioneered computing in America beginning after World War I and continuing through World War II. This unique group of intellectuals lived and worked at Abraham Flexner's Institute for Advanced Study, where Dyson himself spent his boyhood. Dyson recently spoke with TechRepublic during a trip to Louisville, Kentucky.
TechRepublic: Abraham Flexner believed that "Institutes are happiest if they have no history." Do you see that way of thinking in the computer industry today?
Dyson: I would say, as a general rule, most computer scientists are cognizant of computer history because it developed so recently. It's more the human history that gets lost. Of course, I'm biased by being an historian. I think all companies should take more of an historical view in order to avoid repeating work that was done earlier. It's human nature to think we are doing something new, whereas an historian would say "wait a minute, we already did this." So I think a lot of work gets repeated.
In general, I think Flexner's view was really quite healthy. It shouldn't matter what an educational institution did in the past; it should matter what they are doing now.
TechRepublic: In the book, you give an extensive list of principal characters; of the list, who do you think is the most interesting character, and why?
Dyson: Well, my mother's on the list. (laughs). Pretty much, the people on that list were all interesting. It's hard to say who is the most interesting. Clearly Alan Turing was one of the most interesting... I find some of the lesser characters to be terribly interesting. Like Bernetta Miller, who was what we now would call the Administrative Assistant, was the fifth woman in the United States to get a pilot's license and became a secretary when her eyesight went bad. So, there's an interesting person.
TechRepublic: In your interview with Wired, you said that you left the Canadian wilds because you looked at the digital universe and tracks of organisms coming to life. How did you look at the digital universe from 95 feet up in a Douglas fir tree?
Dyson: There you have to credit or thank my sister, Esther Dyson who was a leader in this world. At the time, she published a newsletter that was Esther Dyson's news from the electronic frontier. Me, being her little brother, I got her newsletters. I would sit there at the edge of the wilderness reading Esther's newsletters. Originally, it was the Rosen Electronics Letter, covering semiconductors, then Rosen sold it to her, and she switched it more to personal computing. Her title was Release 1.0, keeping the initials REL. That was a very influential thing at the time. Release 1.0 sort of brought the computer people together with the bankers.
TechRepublic: Why did you move to Canada?
Dyson: I moved to Canada to become a boat builder. I never finished high school and became a Canadian boat builder. I worked on tug boats and fishing boats and that kind of thing. I am eternally grateful to Canada for being such a welcoming country; Canada being much like America was in the 1930s when Flexner set up the Institute, welcoming displaced Europeans. Canada was the same way, welcoming displaced Americans.
TechRepublic: Do you prefer the digital universe to the physical universe?
Dyson: No, I much prefer the real universe; I'm a real universe guy. But the digital universe is having a greater and greater affect on the real universe, so you can't ignore it.
TechRepublic: What does the biological digital universe look like (if you were to draw a picture of it)?
Dyson: Well, at that time there was no Internet. There were the beginnings of what would become the Internet. They were exchanging code through floppy discs, then that quickly became local networks and wide area networks. If you looked at it you would see a lot of code moving between machines... that's what goes on in biology where microbes start exchanging biological code. I think the mistake is that somehow we get stuck in these preconceptions. When we think of Darwinian evolution, we think of mutations...in real biology, evolution is based less on mutation than on "crossing"; where two pieces of code are crossed. Like with children, you take (genetic) code from one parent and cross it with code from another parent. That's what these computer companies are doing — buying and stealing each other's code and adding it to their own. That's really what drives evolution in the digital universe.
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.