George Dyson calls himself an historian of the future. He has a remarkable, if abstruse, essay about a visit to Google on the 60th anniversary of John von Neumann’s proposal for a digital computer entitled Turings Cathedral, published in the Edge.
In the digital universe, there are two kinds of bits: bits that represent structure (differences in space) and bits that represent sequence (differences in time). Digital computers — as formalized by Alan Turing, and delivered by John von Neumann — are devices that —translate between these two species of bits according to definite rules….
By breaking the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things, von Neumann unleashed the power of the stored-program computer, and our universe would never be the same….
Google is building a new, content-addressable layer overlying the von Neumann matrix underneath. The details are mysterious but the principle is simple: it’s a map. And, as Dutch (and other) merchants learned in the sixteenth century, great wealth can be amassed by Keepers of the Map.
We call this a “search engine” — a content-addressable layer that makes it easier for us to find things, share ideas, and retrace our steps. That’s a big leap forward, but it isn’t a universe-shifting revolution equivalent to von Neumann’s breaking the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things in 1945….
This is why Google works so well. All the answers in the known universe are there, and some very ingenious algorithms are in place to map them to questions that people ask….
Despite the whimsical furniture and other toys, I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built. Everyone was busy carving one stone here and another stone there, with some invisible architect getting everything to fit. The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” explained one of my hosts after my talk. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI.”