Computer to Brain, Brain to Computer


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In the dawn of computing computers were essentially rooms full of racks and racks of circuits connected by mazes of cables. The circuits were formed out of electronic valves, relays, solenoids and other electronic and magnetic components, with not a single transistor to be seen, as semiconductors had not then been invented.

To reprogram such computers one often needed a soldering iron and an intensive knowledge of every part of the computer and how the parts interacted. From all accounts such machines were fickle, sometimes working sometimes not.

English: "U.S. Army Photo", from M. ...
English: “U.S. Army Photo”, from M. Weik, “The ENIAC Story” A technician changes a tube. Caption reads “Replacing a bad tube meant checking among ENIAC’s 19,000 possibilities.” Center: Possibly John Holberton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since they were not housed in sterile environments or encased in a metal or plastic shell, foreign bodies could and did find their way into them and cause them to fail. Hence the concept of the computer bug. Computer pioneer Grace Hopper reported a real bug (actually a moth) in a computer and it made a great joke, but from the context of the report the term already existed.


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As we know computer technology rapidly improved, and computers rapidly shrank, became more reliable, and bugs mostly retreated to the software. I don’t know what the architecture of the early room fillers was, but the architecture of most computers these days, even tablets and phones, is based on a single architecture.

This architecture is based on buses, and there is often only one. A bus is like a data highway, and data is placed on this highway and read off it by various other computer circuits such as the CPU (of which more later). To ensure that data is placed on the bus when safe, every circuit in the computer references a single system clock.

English: A Chennai MTC Volvo bus in front of t...
English: A Chennai MTC Volvo bus in front of the Royapettah clock tower, Chennai, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bus acts much like the pass in a restaurant. Orders are placed on it, and data is also placed on it, much like orders are placed through the pass and meals come the other way in a restaurant. Unlike the restaurant’s pass however, there is no clear distinction between orders and data and the bus doesn’t have two sides corresponding to the kitchen and the front of house in a restaurant.

Attached to the bus are the other computer components. As a minimum, there is a CPU, and there is memory. The CPU is the bit that performs the calculations, or the data moves, or whatever. It is important to realise that the CPU itself has no memory of what has been done, and what must be done in the future. It doesn’t know what data is to be worked on either.

The ZX81 PCB. The circuits are (from left to r...
The ZX81 PCB. The circuits are (from left to right) ULA, Z80 CPU, 8 Kb ROM and two memory curcuits making up 1 Kb RAM. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All that stuff is held in the memory, data and program. Memory is mostly changeable, and can contain data and program. There is no distinction in memory between the two.

The CPU looks on the bus for what is to be done next. Suppose the instruction is to load data from the bus to a register. A register is a temporary storage area in the CPU. The CPU does this and then looks for the next instruction which might be to load more data from the bus to another register, and then it might get an instruction to add the two registers and place the result in a third register. Finally it gets told to place the results from the third register onto the bus.

English: Simplified diagram of a computer syst...
English: Simplified diagram of a computer system implemented with a single system bus. This modular organization was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was not entirely correct when I said that there was only one bus in a computer. Other chips have interfaces on the main bus, but have interfaces on other buses too. An example would be the video chip, which has to interface to both the main bus and the display unit. Another example is the keyboard. A computer is not much use without input and output!

The architecture that I’ve described is incorporated in almost all devices that have some “intelligence”. Your washing machine almost certainly has it, and as I said above so do your tablets and phones. Your intelligent TV probably does, and even your stove/range may do. These days we are surrounded by this technology.

The microcontroller on the right of this USB f...
The microcontroller on the right of this USB flash drive is controlled with embedded firmware. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The above is pretty much accurate, though I may have glossed and elided some facts. Although the technology has advanced tremendously over the years, the underlying architecture is still based around the bus concept, with a single clock synchronizing operations.

Within the computer chips themselves, the clock is of prime importance as it ensures that data is in the right place at the right time. Internally a computer chip is a bit like a train set, in that strings of digits flow through the chip, passing through gates which merge and split the bits of the train to perform the calculations. All possible tracks within the chip have be traversable within a clock cycle.

English: Chips & Technologies Super 386
English: Chips & Technologies Super 386 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clockless chips may some day address the on-chip restrictions, though the article I cite was from 2001. I’m more interested in the off-chip restrictions, the ones that spring from the necessity to synchronise the use of the bus. This pretty much defines how computers work and limit their speed.

One possibility is to ditch the bus concept and replace it with a network concept little bits of computing power could be distributed throughout the computer and could either be signalled with the data and the instructions to process the data, or maybe the computing could be distributed to many computational units and the result could then be assessed and the majority taken as the “right” answer. The instructions could be dispensed with if the computational unit only does one task.

Network Computing Devices NCD-88k X terminal, ...
Network Computing Devices NCD-88k X terminal, back ports. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The computational units themselves could be ephemeral too, being formed and unformed as required. This would lead to the “program” and “computation” being distributed across the device as well as the data. Data would be ephemeral too, fading away over time, being reinforced if necessary by reading and writing, much like early computer memory was refresh on each cycle of the clock.

What would such a computer look like? Well, I’d imagine that it would look something like the mass of grey matter between your ears. Data would exist in the device as an echo, much like our memories do, and processing would be distributed through the device much like our brains seem to work. Like the brain it is likely that such a computing device would be grown, and likely some structures would be mostly dedicated to certain tasks, as in the brain.

One big advantage that I see for such “devices” is that it should be very easy to interface them to the brain, as they would work on similar principles. It does mean though that we would be unlikely to be able to download one of these devices to a conventional computer, just as the contents of a brain could never be downloaded to a conventional computer.

On the other hand, the contents of a brain could conceivable be downloaded to a device like I have tried to describe.

Philosophy and Science


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Philosophy can be described, not altogether accurately, as the things that science can’t address. With the modern urge to compartmentalise things, we designate some problems as philosophy and science, and conveniently ignore the fuzzy boundary between the two disciplines.

The ancient Greek philosophers didn’t appear to distinguish much between philosophy and science as such, and the term “Natural Philosophy” described the whole field before the advent of science. The Scientific Revolution of Newton, Leibniz and the rest had the effect of splitting natural philosophy into science and philosophy.

Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford Universit...
Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Note apple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science is (theoretically at least) build on observations. You can’t seriously believe a theory that contradicts the facts, although there is a get-out clause. You can believe such a theory if you have an explanation as to why it doesn’t fit the facts, which amounts to having an extended theory that includes a bit that contains the explanation for the discrepancy.

Philosophy however, is intended to go beyond the facts. Way beyond the facts. Philosophy asks question for example about the scientific method and why it works, and why it works so well. It asks why things are the way they are and other so called “deep” questions.


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One of the questions that Greek philosopher/scientists considered was what everything is made of. Some of them thought that it was made up four elements and some people still do. Democritus had a theory that everything was made up of small indivisible particles, and this atomic theory is a very good explanation of the way things work at a chemical level.

Democritus and his fellow philosopher/scientists had, it is true, some evidence to go and to be fair so did those who preferred the four elements theory, but the idea was more philosophical in nature rather than scientific, I feel. While it was evident that while many substances could be broken down into their components by chemical method, some could not.

Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of comb...
Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of combustion as a chemical reaction with oxygen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So Democritus would have looked at a lump of sulphur, for example, and considered it to be made up of many atoms of sulphur. The competing theory of the four elements however can’t easily explain the irreducible nature of sulphur.

My point here is that while these theories explained some of the properties of matter, the early philosopher/scientists were not too interested in experimentation, so these theories remained philosophical theories. It was not until the Scientific Revolution arrived that these theories were actually tested, albeit indirectly and the science of chemistry took off.

Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus...
Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus from Georg von Peuerbach, Theoricae novae planetarum. Image enhanced for legibility. The abbreviations in the center of the diagram read: C[entrum] æquantis (Center of the equant) C[entrum] deferentis (Center of the deferent) C[entrum] mundi (Center of the world) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before that, chemical knowledge was very run by recipes and instructions. Once scientists realised the implications of atomic theory, they could predict chemical reactions and even weigh atoms, or at least assign masses to atoms, and atomic theory moved from philosophy to science.

That’s not such a big change as you might think. Philosophy says “I’ve got some vague ideas about atoms”. Science says “Based on observations, your theory seems good and I can express your vague ideas more concretely in these equations. Things behave as if real atoms exist and that they behave that way”. Science cannot say that things really are that way, or that atoms really exist as such.

English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms nu...
English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms numbers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indeed, when scientists took a closer look at these atom things they found some issues. For instance the (relative) masses of the atoms are mostly pretty close to integers. Hydrogen’s mass is about 1, Helium’s is about 4, and Lithium’s is about 7. So far so tidy. But Chlorine’s mass is measured as not being far from 35.5.

This can be resolved if atoms contain constituent particles which cannot be added or removed by chemical reactions. A Chlorine atom behaves as if it were made up of 17 positive particles and 18 or 19 uncharged particles of more or less the same mass. If you measure the average mass of a bunch of Chlorine atoms, it will come out at 35.5 (ish). Problem solved.

English: Chlorine gas
English: Chlorine gas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Except that it has not been solved. Democritus’s atoms (it means “indivisibles”) are made up of something else. The philosophical problem is still there. If atoms are not indivisible, what are their component particles made of? The current answer seems to be that they are made of little twists of energy and probability. I wouldn’t put money on that being the absolute last word on it though. Some people think that they are made up of vibrating strings.

All through history philosophy has been raising issues without any regard for whether or not the issues can be solved, or even put to the test. Science has been taking issues at the edges of philosophy and bringing some light to them. Philosophy has been taking issues at the edge of science and conjecturing on them. Often such conjectures are taken back by science and moulded into theory again. Very often the philosophers who conjecture are the scientists who theorise, as in famous scientists like Einstein, Schroedinger and Hawking.

:The Black Hole, Los Alamos
:The Black Hole, Los Alamos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The end result is that the realm of philosophy is reduced somewhat in some places and the realm of science is expanded to cover those areas. But the expansion of science suggests new areas for philosophy. To explain some of the features of quantum mechanics some people suggest that there are many “worlds” or universes rather than just the one familiar to us.

This is really in the realm of philosophy as it is, as yet, unsupported by any evidence (that I know of, anyway). There are philosophers/scientists on both sides of the argument so the issue is nowhere near settled and the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics is only one of many interpretations. The problem is that quantum mechanics is not intuitively understandable.

Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worl...
Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “many worlds interpretation” at least so far the Wikipedia article goes, views reality as a many branched tree. This seems unlikely as probabilities are rarely as binary as a branched tree. Probability is a continuum, like space or time, and it is likely that any event is represented on a dimension of space, time, and probability.

I don’t know if such a possibility makes sense in terms of the equations, so that means that I am practising philosophy and not science! Nevertheless, I like the idea.

Displacement of a continuum body, from a refer...
Displacement of a continuum body, from a reference configuration to the current configuration. Continuum mechanics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Technolust


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I’m going to define technolust or technophilia as the almost uncontrollable urge to snap up the latest or most novel technical gadgets. I succumb to this disease frequently, although I do try to keep it under control. I do! Honestly!

I’ve been vaguely wondering about these selfie sticks, the ones where you stick your cell phone on the end of a pole and trigger it by using a bluetooth connection, so when I saw a bluetooth camera trigger in a local shop, I had to buy it. I had to buy it. I had no choice.


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Having got it home and played with it for a bit, I now have to find a use for the darn thing! I don’t particularly like selfies and you can only take so many of them, because essentially they are all the one picture with different backgrounds. You could essentially take one photograph against a “green screen” and chromakey in any background you desire.

My particular area of technolust is things related to or containing computer technology. It’s been with me all my life though I didn’t know it until I came across computer technology at home and at work. I had a Commodore 64 computer at home, and at work I worked on the old huge mainframes, mainly IBM ones. But it really blossomed when I came across mini computers, and the early PCs. I had one of the first portable PCs, like the one in the picture.

English: The IBM Portable PC 5155 model 68
English: The IBM Portable PC 5155 model 68 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One mainframe computer I worked on had 256kB of memory and we agonised over how we should divide the address space up between three or four “domains”. Another had a staggering 2MB of memory.

Then at the other end of the scale one PC we had we also upgraded to 2MB of memory, which came on a plugin card which was around 30 – 40 cms long and 10 – 15 cms high. We had to leave the top of the case off to use it!

English: Sun 2/50 1 MB Memory Expansion Board ...
English: Sun 2/50 1 MB Memory Expansion Board P/N 501-1020, with SCSI Controller P/N 501-1045 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not always physical things that trigger technolust or technophilia. Before all printers came with network connections they were connected (via a parallel cable usually) to a PC. It could then be shared to others over the network. HP produced a “JetDirect” device which connected the printer to the network either via a cable or a card inserted into the printer itself. I still remember the thrill that I got when I connected over the network to a JetDirect device (which is about the size of a small paperback book) using FTP as if it was a small computer in its own right, which in fact is what the device was.

{| cellspacing="0" style="min-w...
{| cellspacing=”0″ style=”min-width:40em; color:#000; background:#ddd; border:1px solid #bbb; margin:.1em;” class=”layouttemplate” | style=”width:1.2em;height:1.2em;padding:.2em” | 20px |link=|center | style=”font-size:.85em; padding:.2em; vertical-align:middle” |This file was uploaded with Commonist. |} Category:Uploaded with Commonist Deutsch: HP Druckserver Jetdirect 600N mit Ethernet und BNC für den Einbau in Druckern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve got altogether too many computer-related devices in the house. Some I use all the time and others are gathering dust. If I was truly obsessive I could fill the house with devices and possibly go broke, but I haven’t gone to those extremes. So I have a “server” and a “workstation”, and my wife has a laptop. Strictly speaking I have a laptop, but I don’t boot it up very often. It is my wife’s old laptop which I fixed and rebuilt.

Some time ago we got an iPad, which I found amazing – something the size of a magazine, which was able to do much of what the other more conventional computers were able to, and which was run by the touch of a finger (or two!). I also got an Android phone and I fell in love with the thing, so I had to have an Android tablet. Had to. No question!


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I love my Android tablet! It’s a rare day when I don’t use it two or three times and often it is more than that. I investigated programming for it, though I don’t have a “killer app”, so most of my programming efforts are uncompleted. I mostly use it for reading ebooks, getting the latest news and to a lesser extent for email and other online web browsing.

I also use it for games. When I go to bed I take the tablet with me and complete a couple of Sudoku puzzles or similar before I go to sleep. Experts advise against this, but it works for me.

English: IRex iLiad ebook reader outdoors in s...
English: IRex iLiad ebook reader outdoors in sunlight. Electronic paper. Electrophoretic display. Français : Bouquin électronique iLiad de Irex dehors à la lumière du soleil. Papier électronique. Ecran électrophorétique. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people these days appear to be afflicted with technophilia or technolust. When a new Apple device is released queues form at the Apple stores worldwide as people try to slake their desire for latest gadget. This is strange as their old devices, which used to be the latest devices at one time, are not rendered useless by the new devices, and transferring personal information to the new device can be challenging, in spite of attempts to make it easy.

English: iPhone 4.
English: iPhone 4. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Technolust also extends to software. Some people just have to have the latest apps, the latest operating system. The usual justification for such an upgrade is usually justified by the user as a desire for the new features in the new software or bug fixes in the new software.  While I would not advocate never upgrading software, I find such justifications a little weak.

There is a danger that a software upgrade may “brick” a device, that is, it might stop the device from booting up and being used, which is why many people shy away from upgrades. While this is a real concern such happenings are rare and most upgrades go OK. Nevertheless, most users of technology have a horror story  about how things have turned to custard during an upgrade.


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I’m what I would classify as a cautious early adopter. For instance, when the new software was released for my phone and tablet, and these devices informed me that the update was available, I waited for a few weeks and followed the news on the upgrade on the Internet. This is almost always a bad idea as long conversations between people who have had trouble (interspersed with odd rare comment “It went OK for me”) doesn’t encourage one to upgrade!

IPod touch with software upgrade and web clips
IPod touch with software upgrade and web clips (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those who grow up with technology tend to use that technology without giving it much thought. Televisions are part of the environment. Cell phones are part of the environment. Maybe soon 3-D printers will be part of the environment. Smart phones and tablets, while desirable, are not quite so novel to the kids of today. They will no doubt direct their technolusts to other technologies.


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Granny has an iPad

Español: Tim Berners-Lee En el Foro de la Gobe...
Español: Tim Berners-Lee En el Foro de la Gobernanza de Internet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 12 March 1989 Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would become the “World Wide Web”, now enshrined in the “www” that is part of the name of many websites. This is often now voiced as “dub, dub, dub”, causing many people to cringe. Through 1990 and into 1991 Tim’s idea was refined until the idea was announced publicly on 7 August 1991.

Granny would have about 30 at the time, or maybe younger.

English: Graph of internet users per 100 inhab...
English: Graph of internet users per 100 inhabitants between 1997 and 2007 by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recreated in OpenOffice Calc, source: http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/ict/graphs/internet.jpg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth remembering that the Internet had been around for a decade or so, in rudimentary form, so the chances are that Granny might have come into contact with it if she was working in it at the time, maybe at a university. It’s far more likely though that Granny’s first contact with computing would have come from working at a large firm where they had a mainframe computer.

IBM 3279-S3G
IBM 3279-S3G (Photo credit: vaxomatic)

Maybe she sat at an IBM 3270 screen and typed accounting data into it, or maybe she was one of the people who loaded punched cards into a reader or tended the huge printers  that spat out piles of paper with horizontal green stripes and sprocket holes down the edge. Or maybe she loaded magnetic tape reels into one of the tape reader machines which for some reason came to signify “computing” in many films of the era.

The Internet started as a linked network of computers, running online databases, using names such as “Archie” and “Gopher”. Everything was text based and there was no linking. That had to wait for Tim Berners-Lee’s insight. Universities embraced the new medium and most databases were held on University servers.

Gopher
Gopher (Photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg)

When you blithely click on link to visit a web page a number of things happen. Firstly your computer recognises that you want to do something. A program on your computer called the browser (Firefox, or Chrome or Internet Explorer) analyses your input and decides what you want it to do.

This may involve sending a request to a remote server, but your computer doesn’t know where the server, so it needs to find out. This is done by sending a message to yet another server which has information about where the requested server is on the Internet, or knows how to find out.

Description unavailable
Description unavailable (Photo credit: Forest Service Southwestern Region)

In the early days of the Internet, when Granny may have first come into contact with it, this system did not exist, so every computer on the Internet was required to know the whereabouts of every other computer on the Internet. As you can imagine, updating the address information became a tedious chore and that is why the system that I sketchily outlined above was invented.

Once Granny found a document whose title looked interesting, she would have to download it. Today we click on a link and the document appears on our screen. But Granny would have had to tediously search likely sources for the document, then she would transfer it to the server that she was connected to, and finally she would be able to print it on a printer. If she was lucky the printer would be nearby and it would actually have some paper in it. Granny’s document would be printed in a fixed width font on striped paper by a printer with a ribbon and little hammers, like a glorified typewriter.

English: demonstration of how an impact printe...
English: demonstration of how an impact printer works (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Granny would have been around 20 when IBM introduced the first “IBM Personal Computer” in 1981, but she might have first come into contact with something like a Commodore 64 or Sinclair ZX 81 or Spectrum. She might have played games loaded tedious by command line commands from cassette tape. It’s possible that she was amazed by the blocky coloured graphics and the clunky game play, considering that the next best thing around was “Pong”, a primitive tennis game on a fixed device, sometimes set into a tabletop, or maybe “Space Invaders”, also hosted on a single purpose device.

English: Commodore 64 computer (1982). Post pr...
English: Commodore 64 computer (1982). Post processing: BG, B/C, noise, dust, spot Français : Ordinateur Commodore 64. Suomi: Commodore 64 -tietokone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Granny had anything to do with computers in the early days of personal computers she would have had to deal with machines that by default booted into BASIC. That’s pretty much a fall-back as usually would have inserted a floppy disk with some version of DOS into the machine. Then she would have had to have loaded whatever program she wanted to run by using another floppy disk.

She would have had to become familiar with the DOS command line, including such quirks as the A: and B: drive referring to the same device. Most of the time. She might even have edited configuration files by hand.

Computer directory listing in a command shell.
Computer directory listing in a command shell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When she got her first hard disk she would have installed DOS or even Windows on it from maybe three or four floppy disks. The first Windows versions ran as a shell on top of DOS, so she would have still needed to have a knowledge of DOS.

In addition she would have had to handle the dreaded device drivers. These were (and still are) small programs that handled interactions with specific installed hardware. Which in the early days of DOS and Windows meant just about any piece of hardware.

Mini CD used for delivering USB drivers for a ...
Mini CD used for delivering USB drivers for a webcam. Photo taken by user: O mores. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Granny installed her new scanner she would have received a disk with it containing the drivers. She would know from prior experience that installing a driver could possibly make her system crash and be unbootable. But she would have still installed it and most probably (eventually) come out on top of it.

In addition before Granny got broadband she would have experienced the doubtful pleasures of using a dial-up modem, and would be familiar with the weird little song it sings to itself when it is handshaking with the remote modem. And she would certainly be familiar with waiting for half an hour to download a megabyte file and Grandad picking up the phone one minute before the end and breaking the connection.

Quicktel 2400EX
Quicktel 2400EX (Photo credit: debagel)

So, now Granny has bought an iPad. Don’t be surprised if she takes to it like a duck to water. After all, she probably has decades more experience with computers and networks, the Internet and downloading than you have. You weren’t born when she started!

she has a thing for it
she has a thing for it (Photo credit: creaid)
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