#computers

Eugene Wei:

We now live in that age, though it’s not the desktops and laptops but our tablets and smart phones that are the instant-on computers. Whether it’s transformed Amazon’s business, I can’t say; they have plenty going for them. But it’s certainly changed our usage of computers generally. I only ever turn off my iPad or iPhone if something has gone wrong and I need to reboot them or if I’m low on battery power and need to speed up recharging.

In this next age, anything that cannot turn on instantly and isn’t connected to the internet at all times will feel deficient.

So true. After a week on the road, I just booted my my desktop computer — it boots pretty fast, under 20 seconds, but it still seems like forever versus just hitting a button to turn on the screen of my iPhone or iPad.

I still remember the days it would take several minutes to start up a computer. And when you were supposed to shut them down after using them. Seems like ancient history.

The Economist:

Tape is the oldest computer storage medium still in use. It was first put to work on a UNIVAC computer in 1951. But although tape sales have been falling since 2008 and dropped by 14% in 2012, according to the Santa Clara Consulting Group, tape’s decline has now gone into reverse: sales grew by 1% in the last quarter of 2012 and a 3% rise is expected this year.

Interesting.

Speaking of simulations, here’s Christopher Chabris and David Goodman on the role that computers have settled into in chess:

Before the Deep Blue match, top players were using databases of games to prepare for tournaments. Computers could display games at high speed while the players searched for the patterns and weaknesses of their opponents. The programs could spot blunders, but they didn’t understand chess well enough to offer much more than that.

Once laptops could routinely dispatch grandmasters, however, it became possible to integrate their analysis fully into other aspects of the game. Commentators at major tournaments now consult computers to check their judgment. Online, fans get excited when their own “engines” discover moves the players miss. And elite grandmasters use computers to test their opening plans and generate new ideas.

This wouldn’t be very interesting if computers, with their ability to calculate millions of moves per second, were just correcting human blunders. But they are doing much more than that. When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces that look “ugly” to human sensibilities, they are often seeing more deeply into the game than their users. They are not perfect; sometimes long-term strategy still eludes them. But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas.

Since the computers have already mastered chess, we’re now the ones learning from them. And becoming more like them…

Zeeya Merali:

Seth Lloyd, a quantum-mechanical engineer at MIT, estimated the number of “computer operations” our universe has performed since the Big Bang — basically, every event that has ever happened. To repeat them, and generate a perfect facsimile of reality down to the last atom, would take more energy than the universe has. 

“The computer would have to be bigger than the universe, and time would tick more slowly in the program than in reality,” says Lloyd. “So why even bother building it?” 

But others soon realized that making an imperfect copy of the universe that’s just good enough to fool its inhabitants would take far less computational power. In such a makeshift cosmos, the fine details of the microscopic world and the farthest stars might only be filled in by the programmers on the rare occasions that people study them with scientific equipment. As soon as no one was looking, they’d simply vanish. 

In theory, we’d never detect these disappearing features, however, because each time the simulators noticed we were observing them again, they’d sketch them back in. 

That realization makes creating virtual universes eerily possible, even for us. Today’s supercomputers already crudely model the early universe, simulating how infant galaxies grew and changed. Given the rapid technological advances we’ve witnessed over past decades — your cell phone has more processing power than NASA’s computers had during the moon landings — it’s not a huge leap to imagine that such simulations will eventually encompass intelligent life. 

"Woah."

Joshua Rothman talks with Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, about his new book, Average Is Over:

Rothman: You believe that, in the future, the most well-compensated workers will be something like freestyle chess players.

Cowen: Think in terms of this future middle-class job: You read medical scans, and you work alongside a computer. The computer does most of the judging, but there are some special or unusual scans where you say, “Hmm, that’s not quite right—I need a doctor to look at this again and study it more carefully.” You’ll need to know something about medicine, but it won’t be the same as being a doctor. You’ll need to know something about how these programs work, but it won’t be the same as being a programmer. You’ll need to be really good at judging, and being dispassionate, and you’ll have to have a sense of what computers can and cannot do. It’s about working with the machine: knowing when to hold back, when to intervene.

I don’t agree with everything Cowen brings up, but this strikes me as inevitable for our workforce. 

A little old (2011), but a great story by Jessica Lussenhop. Here’s one fun anecdote about the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium (MECC), under which Oregon Trail was developed:

IN 1978, MECC opened up the bidding process for a new kind of computer to distribute in its schools. Huge multimillion-dollar mainframes the size of rooms and teletypes were being replaced by compact units with screens. MECC was looking for the right microcomputer to put in its schools. Bids from the biggest computer companies came in.

On the final day, just minutes before the bidding was set to close, a husky courier screeched up to the office in St. Paul and ran to the front desk with a hand-scrawled bid. He slapped it down with just seconds to spare.

The handwriting extolled the virtues of something called the Apple II. The letter was sent by two no-names in their twenties—Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.