Searching for a Just Machine: Why computing came to be and what

Searching for a Just Machine: Why computing came to be and what it will become
Dr. Perry Alexander
Professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Director, Information and Telecommunication Technology Center
“A just machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellas’ with compassion and vision, what
a beautiful world it will be.” – Donald Fagen, “IGY” from The Nightfly
Today there are 20 computers and 20,000,000,000 transistors on our planet for every human
being. Computers apply the brakes in our cars and fly our aircraft. They find the best sushi
restaurant in Lawrence and predict the annual rice output in China. They deliver our music and
books, guide us to our destinations, control our power grids, and now understand our voices.
Computers impact every aspect of our lives, yet who invented them and why is unknown to
virtually everyone. Where did computing come from? Was it discovered like a planet, proven
like a theorem, or created like music? What are its fundamental limitations?
Searching for a Just Machine will follow the path of early philosophers and mathematicians
down the rabbit hole in search of Fagen’s just machine, making our big decisions in his perfect
future world. To understand this search, we will explore three complimentary themes: where
computing came from and why; the promises and limitations of what can be computed; and the
social phenomenon surrounding computing’s past and present.
We will follow the rise of computers from abstract, philosophical constructions to physical
devices. We will start with Hilbert’s program to give knowledge and reasoning structure, its
motivations, its rise as a philosophical movement, and its fall at the hands of Kurt Gödel’s
incompleteness theorem. We will then learn the logic and language behind information and
reason by looking at Turing’s Universal Machine, Church’s Lambda Calculus, and Von
Neumann’s self-replicating machine.
We will examine the limitations of what can be computed, focusing on implications of those
limitations on today’s scientific and social problems. Surprisingly, we knew the limitations of
what could be computed before we had the first electronic computers and those limits continue to
hold. We will examine completeness, consistency, and computability, and the impacts of these
concepts on processing massive data being produced by today’s society.
Finally, we will examine the social phenomenon of computing including the lives of its creators,
its birth during World War II, and its implications on today’s society. We will examine the lives
of computing pioneers such as Hilbert, Gödel, and Turing in the context of a world at war, and
how that war shaped computing’s birth. We will also discuss computers and their role in the
world we are creating.
Our in-class studies will be guided by Douglas Hofstader’s Pulitzer prize winning book Gödel,
Escher, Bach, a uniquely brilliant book that connects mathematics, art, and music in presenting
the fundamentals of computation. Additionally, we will re-examine Cryptograph: An Exhibition
for Alan Turing displayed at The Spencer Museum of Art, extending the exhibition online using
art and music to memorialize the search for a just machine.