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  • Last year, I told you the story, in seven minutes, of Project Orion,

  • which was this very implausible technology

  • that technically could have worked,

  • but it had this one-year political window where it could have happened.

  • So it didn't happen. It was a dream that did not happen.

  • This year I'm going to tell you the story of the birth of digital computing.

  • This was a perfect introduction.

  • And it's a story that did work. It did happen,

  • and the machines are all around us.

  • And it was a technology that was inevitable.

  • If the people I'm going to tell you the story about,

  • if they hadn't done it, somebody else would have.

  • So, it was sort of the right idea at the right time.

  • This is Barricelli's universe. This is the universe we live in now.

  • It's the universe in which these machines

  • are now doing all these things, including changing biology.

  • I'm starting the story with the first atomic bomb at Trinity,

  • which was the Manhattan Project. It was a little bit like TED:

  • it brought a whole lot of very smart people together.

  • And three of the smartest people were

  • Stan Ulam, Richard Feynman and John von Neumann.

  • And it was Von Neumann who said, after the bomb,

  • he was working on something much more important than bombs:

  • he's thinking about computers.

  • So, he wasn't only thinking about them; he built one. This is the machine he built.

  • (Laughter)

  • He built this machine,

  • and we had a beautiful demonstration of how this thing really works,

  • with these little bits. And it's an idea that goes way back.

  • The first person to really explain that

  • was Thomas Hobbes, who, in 1651,

  • explained how arithmetic and logic are the same thing,

  • and if you want to do artificial thinking and artificial logic,

  • you can do it all with arithmetic.

  • He said you needed addition and subtraction.

  • Leibniz, who came a little bit later -- this is 1679 --

  • showed that you didn't even need subtraction.

  • You could do the whole thing with addition.

  • Here, we have all the binary arithmetic and logic

  • that drove the computer revolution.

  • And Leibniz was the first person to really talk about building such a machine.

  • He talked about doing it with marbles,

  • having gates and what we now call shift registers,

  • where you shift the gates, drop the marbles down the tracks.

  • And that's what all these machines are doing,

  • except, instead of doing it with marbles,

  • they're doing it with electrons.

  • And then we jump to Von Neumann, 1945,

  • when he sort of reinvents the whole same thing.

  • And 1945, after the war, the electronics existed

  • to actually try and build such a machine.

  • So June 1945 -- actually, the bomb hasn't even been dropped yet --

  • and Von Neumann is putting together all the theory to actually build this thing,

  • which also goes back to Turing,

  • who, before that, gave the idea that you could do all this

  • with a very brainless, little, finite state machine,

  • just reading a tape in and reading a tape out.

  • The other sort of genesis of what Von Neumann did

  • was the difficulty of how you would predict the weather.

  • Lewis Richardson saw how you could do this with a cellular array of people,

  • giving them each a little chunk, and putting it together.

  • Here, we have an electrical model illustrating a mind having a will,

  • but capable of only two ideas.

  • (Laughter)

  • And that's really the simplest computer.

  • It's basically why you need the qubit,

  • because it only has two ideas.

  • And you put lots of those together,

  • you get the essentials of the modern computer:

  • the arithmetic unit, the central control, the memory,

  • the recording medium, the input and the output.

  • But, there's one catch. This is the fatal -- you know,

  • we saw it in starting these programs up.

  • The instructions which govern this operation

  • must be given in absolutely exhaustive detail.

  • So, the programming has to be perfect, or it won't work.

  • If you look at the origins of this,

  • the classic history sort of takes it all back to the ENIAC here.

  • But actually, the machine I'm going to tell you about,

  • the Institute for Advanced Study machine, which is way up there,

  • really should be down there. So, I'm trying to revise history,

  • and give some of these guys more credit than they've had.

  • Such a computer would open up universes,

  • which are, at the present, outside the range of any instruments.

  • So it opens up a whole new world, and these people saw it.

  • The guy who was supposed to build this machine

  • was the guy in the middle, Vladimir Zworykin, from RCA.

  • RCA, in probably one of the lousiest business decisions

  • of all time, decided not to go into computers.

  • But the first meetings, November 1945, were at RCA's offices.

  • RCA started this whole thing off, and said, you know,

  • televisions are the future, not computers.

  • The essentials were all there --

  • all the things that make these machines run.

  • Von Neumann, and a logician, and a mathematician from the army

  • put this together. Then, they needed a place to build it.

  • When RCA said no, that's when they decided to build it in Princeton,

  • where Freeman works at the Institute.

  • That's where I grew up as a kid.

  • That's me, that's my sister Esther, who's talked to you before,

  • so we both go back to the birth of this thing.

  • That's Freeman, a long time ago,

  • and that was me.

  • And this is Von Neumann and Morgenstern,

  • who wrote the "Theory of Games."

  • All these forces came together there, in Princeton.

  • Oppenheimer, who had built the bomb.

  • The machine was actually used mainly for doing bomb calculations.

  • And Julian Bigelow, who took

  • Zworkykin's place as the engineer, to actually figure out, using electronics,

  • how you would build this thing. The whole gang of people who came to work on this,

  • and women in front, who actually did most of the coding, were the first programmers.

  • These were the prototype geeks, the nerds.

  • They didn't fit in at the Institute.

  • This is a letter from the director, concerned about --

  • "especially unfair on the matter of sugar."

  • (Laughter)

  • You can read the text.

  • (Laughter)

  • This is hackers getting in trouble for the first time.

  • (Laughter).

  • These were not theoretical physicists.

  • They were real soldering-gun type guys, and they actually built this thing.

  • And we take it for granted now, that each of these machines

  • has billions of transistors, doing billions of cycles per second without failing.

  • They were using vacuum tubes, very narrow, sloppy techniques

  • to get actually binary behavior out of these radio vacuum tubes.

  • They actually used 6J6, the common radio tube,

  • because they found they were more reliable than the more expensive tubes.

  • And what they did at the Institute was publish every step of the way.

  • Reports were issued, so that this machine was cloned

  • at 15 other places around the world.

  • And it really was. It was the original microprocessor.

  • All the computers now are copies of that machine.

  • The memory was in cathode ray tubes --

  • a whole bunch of spots on the face of the tube --

  • very, very sensitive to electromagnetic disturbances.

  • So, there's 40 of these tubes,

  • like a V-40 engine running the memory.

  • (Laughter)

  • The input and the output was by teletype tape at first.

  • This is a wire drive, using bicycle wheels.

  • This is the archetype of the hard disk that's in your machine now.

  • Then they switched to a magnetic drum.

  • This is modifying IBM equipment,

  • which is the origins of the whole data-processing industry, later at IBM.

  • And this is the beginning of computer graphics.

  • The "Graph'g-Beam Turn On." This next slide,

  • that's the -- as far as I know -- the first digital bitmap display, 1954.

  • So, Von Neumann was already off in a theoretical cloud,

  • doing abstract sorts of studies of how you could build

  • reliable machines out of unreliable components.

  • Those guys drinking all the tea with sugar in it

  • were writing in their logbooks, trying to get this thing to work, with all

  • these 2,600 vacuum tubes that failed half the time.

  • And that's what I've been doing, this last six months, is going through the logs.

  • "Running time: two minutes. Input, output: 90 minutes."

  • This includes a large amount of human error.

  • So they are always trying to figure out, what's machine error? What's human error?

  • What's code, what's hardware?

  • That's an engineer gazing at tube number 36,

  • trying to figure out why the memory's not in focus.

  • He had to focus the memory -- seems OK.

  • So, he had to focus each tube just to get the memory up and running,

  • let alone having, you know, software problems.

  • "No use, went home." (Laughter)

  • "Impossible to follow the damn thing, where's a directory?"

  • So, already, they're complaining about the manuals:

  • "before closing down in disgust ... "

  • "The General Arithmetic: Operating Logs."

  • Burning lots of midnight oil.

  • "MANIAC," which became the acronym for the machine,

  • Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Calculator, "lost its memory."

  • "MANIAC regained its memory, when the power went off." "Machine or human?"

  • "Aha!" So, they figured out it's a code problem.

  • "Found trouble in code, I hope."

  • "Code error, machine not guilty."

  • "Damn it, I can be just as stubborn as this thing."

  • (Laughter)

  • "And the dawn came." So they ran all night.

  • Twenty-four hours a day, this thing was running, mainly running bomb calculations.

  • "Everything up to this point is wasted time." "What's the use? Good night."

  • "Master control off. The hell with it. Way off." (Laughter)

  • "Something's wrong with the air conditioner --

  • smell of burning V-belts in the air."

  • "A short -- do not turn the machine on."

  • "IBM machine putting a tar-like substance on the cards. The tar is from the roof."

  • So they really were working under tough conditions.

  • (Laughter)

  • Here, "A mouse has climbed into the blower

  • behind the regulator rack, set blower to vibrating. Result: no more mouse."

  • (Laughter)

  • "Here lies mouse. Born: ?. Died: 4:50 a.m., May 1953."

  • (Laughter)

  • There's an inside joke someone has penciled in:

  • "Here lies Marston Mouse."

  • If you're a mathematician, you get that,

  • because Marston was a mathematician who

  • objected to the computer being there.

  • "Picked a lightning bug off the drum." "Running at two kilocycles."

  • That's two thousand cycles per second --

  • "yes, I'm chicken" -- so two kilocycles was slow speed.

  • The high speed was 16 kilocycles.

  • I don't know if you remember a Mac that was 16 Megahertz,

  • that's slow speed.

  • "I have now duplicated both results.

  • How will I know which is right, assuming one result is correct?

  • This now is the third different output.

  • I know when I'm licked."

  • (Laughter)

  • "We've duplicated errors before."

  • "Machine run, fine. Code isn't."

  • "Only happens when the machine is running."

  • And sometimes things are okay.

  • "Machine a thing of beauty, and a joy forever." "Perfect running."

  • "Parting thought: when there's bigger and better errors, we'll have them."

  • So, nobody was supposed to know they were actually designing bombs.

  • They're designing hydrogen bombs. But someone in the logbook,

  • late one night, finally drew a bomb.

  • So, that was the result. It was Mike,

  • the first thermonuclear bomb, in 1952.

  • That was designed on that machine,

  • in the woods behind the Institute.

  • So Von Neumann invited a whole gang of weirdos

  • from all over the world to work on all these problems.

  • Barricelli, he came to do what we now call, really, artificial life,

  • trying to see if, in this artificial universe --

  • he was a viral-geneticist, way, way, way ahead of his time.

  • He's still ahead of some of the stuff that's being done now.

  • Trying to start an artificial genetic system running in the computer.

  • Began -- his universe started March 3, '53.

  • So it's almost exactly -- it's 50 years ago next Tuesday, I guess.

  • And he saw everything in terms of --

  • he could read the binary code straight off the machine.

  • He had a wonderful rapport.

  • Other people couldn't get the machine running. It always worked for him.

  • Even errors were duplicated.

  • (Laughter)

  • "Dr. Barricelli claims machine is wrong, code is right."

  • So he designed this universe, and ran it.

  • When the bomb people went home, he was allowed in there.

  • He would run that thing all night long, running these things,

  • if anybody remembers Stephen Wolfram,

  • who reinvented this stuff.

  • And he published it. It wasn't locked up and disappeared.

  • It was published in the literature.

  • "If it's that easy to create living organisms, why not create a few yourself?"

  • So, he decided to give it a try,

  • to start this artificial biology going in the machines.

  • And he found all these