Ancient Computing Revolution

Posted on January 18, 2010


NOTE: Don’t let the title fool you.  This is a post about the nature of humanity.

Humans have built computing machinery for thousands of years, but in the 1800s an incredible transition began: programmability.  Born for the purpose of more flexibly automating looms, the technology of machines that can execute arbitrary lists of instructions was expanded by the needs of mathematicians and then pushed even further to address the code breaking challenges of World War II.  As time went on, it became more and more apparent how powerful a general purpose computer could be.  Why spend time and money developing and debugging new hardware for each application when you could just change the software?  Especially when you can even use the same hardware for many different purposes by running multiple sets of software on it.

These days, generalized computing hardware is everywhere.  It’s in your television set, your laptop, your cell phone, your car, etc….  The process which began in the 1800s was the rise of software.  Software has become more important than hardware in many ways.  When you have a new computational task to perform, you don’t often buy a new computer for it; you create or buy a new piece of software.  You’re not happy if your computer’s processor, RAM, or peripheral devices are destroyed.  But you’re REALLY upset if the hard drive is destroyed.  People will sometimes pay more to have data restored from a damaged hard drive than they would for a brand new computer.  Why?  Because the hardware is the same as tens of thousands like it.  It was the unique information being stored by the hardware, both data and instructions for what to do with data, that was so precious.

By generalizing the hardware components, we can take advantage of redundancy to make our systems more resistant to failures.  If the processor fails, just put in a new one – the same kind that is mass produced for many other purposes.  The RAM?  Same deal.  The hard drive?  Replace the hard drive with one just like it and restore from a backup of the unique information you need.  This can even be automated, as in RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) data storage.

What does any of this have to do with the paleolithic era?  Why would I call it ancient?  Because it is in the very ancient paleolithic era that humankind seems to have gone from something we’d see as just another type of animal to something we’d see as human beings.  I’d like to suggest to you that this transition from relying on specialized hardware to relying on generalized hardware with specialized software is exactly what has happened, and is continuing to happen, to our own species.

If we call our brains a kind of hardware, then the software is our minds.  What we see as an increase in intelligence may be rooted in more heavy reliance on software.  Our brains become less and less “hardwired” as we have greater capacity to learn complex behaviors from our parents, our cultures, and our experiences.  The obvious advantage of this over biologically hardwired behaviors is that behavioral adaptation to changing environments can occur very quickly.  It would take many generations for the same adaptations to occur genetically.

This software-mind concept can be seen in our attitudes towards ourselves.  The concept of “self” is sacred to us, and it is almost universally focussed on the brain.  We sorely miss any amputated limbs, but in most cases we’d sacrifice any limb to save our minds from destruction.  Stories are found throughout human lore of minds swapping between bodies, demonstrating the idea that the mind may be somehow separable not only from the rest of the body but from the brain – that the software may be run on other compatible hardware.

This idea is showing up more and more in science fiction.  The most recent prominent example I can think of is Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse.  The idea that the human mind can be transferred into an artificial computer, and that the “self” will not be lost in the process, is becoming more and more popular.  It is one of the major components of transhumanism.  And so I see this as a trend, begun slowly in the distant past, ever accelerating, and echoed in the technology that we ourselves create.

I’ve written this post because I don’t want to neglect the question of how we became this tool-making, abstract-thinking creature in the first place.  Several people have pointed out that PBS recently made a documentary about that very question: Becoming Human.  Watching that will be my next step in pursuing the matter.  A review will be forthcoming.

Thank you for reading!

LINK: Review of part 1