Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Centenary of a computing giant

These days, we hear a lot about the achievements of Apple. I'm unlikely to complain about that, of course, because I've always been totally addicted to the products of Cupertino, from back at the time I wrote my first book about the Mac, in 1984, and even before then, at the pioneering epoch of the Apple II computer.

In the midst of all the talk about the marvelous creations of Steve Jobs, we must never forget, however, that the Big Daddy of computing has always remained a celebrated US corporation that made a name for itself by selling so-called "business machines" on an international scale.

In 2011, the company will be turning 100, which means that it was born in the same year as Tennessee Williams, Ronald Reagan and France's Georges Pompidou. I joined IBM in Sydney towards the end of 1957, and worked as a computer programmer using the Fortran language on a vacuum-tube machine called the IBM 650, whose central memory was housed on a revolving magnetically-coated drum.

The new IBM website designed to celebrate the centenary includes an interesting video on the second-generation transistorized computer that came next: the IBM 1401, seen here in an old marketing photo:

This was the machine I was programming (in a macro-assembler language called Autocoder) at the time I arrived in Paris, in 1962, and started to work at the European headquarters of IBM. Click the above photo to see the video concerning this machine, which shows various former IBMers of my generation.

These days, IBM has embarked upon a colossal computer challenge in the domain of artificial intelligence. Known as Watson (the name of the founder of IBM), this project aims to get a computer to perform better than human beings in the American TV game called Jeopardy! The system, based upon so-called massively-parallel probabilistic evidence-based architecture, incorporates a vast array of big boxes that have much the same external aspect as the units of an archaic IBM 1401… but you can be sure they do more things!

Click the photo to visit IBM's website on their fabulous Watson project.

AFTERTHOUGHT: It's good, in a way, that IBM has been somewhat out of the limelight for many years, compared to companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google. That has enabled IBM to move ahead quietly and constantly in a field such as artificial intelligence without too much media interference. But this situation is likely to change in a spectacular fashion as soon as Watson starts to bare its teeth… which is exactly what's happening at this very moment. Personally, I would not hesitate for a moment in declaring that a project such as Watson represents one of the greatest human challenges of all time: the invention of a deus ex machina that seems to be approaching the spirit of the famous IBM slogan.

I used to dream about that challenge back in the early '70s, when I was making a series of documentaries on this subject in the USA, for French TV, and writing my book on artificial intelligence.

And I still do, today, more than ever… particularly since scholars such as and Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker have convinced me that we human beings are "merely" a special kind of machine, imbued with a strange property (not yet understood, of course) referred to as consciousness.

ANECDOTE: You might wonder why software engineers at Google and elsewhere have been scanning vast libraries of books of all kinds, and making them freely available to researchers. Are the corporations and engineers doing this because they want to offer more and more reading material, philanthropically, to old-timers such as you and me? Don't be naive! They're building those vast digital libraries for readers of a new kind: future generations of intelligent computers.

BREAKING NEWS: Stephen Wolfram, in his blog [display], seems to believe that IBM's Watson will win the forthcoming Jeopardy TV event. Moreover, he is encouraging IBM… even though their Watson is a competitor of his own approach: the so-called Wolfram-Alpha system.

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