Thursday, May 24, 2012

Turing's Cathedral

If you are looking for something to pop on the coffee table and have an interest in Digital the book of the above title by George Dyson could be just the thing to divert your mind away from the implications of the "Grexit". Most striking is that the initial work which led to fast digital switching was developed during & immediately post WWII by people such as Alan Turing and John Von Neumann. Much of the subsequent work in this area has been built on the fundamental insights they developed.

One of the projects that was considered was improving the accuracy of anti-aircraft fire. In 1940 only 1 in 2500 anti-aircraft shells scored a hit. The reason was that a gunner had about 10 seconds to work out range, fuse timing (in his head) and fire the shell. Pretty tough even if you can do the cryptic crossword. Work done using automated calculators on these projects was then used in von Neumann's Electronic Computer Project in Princeton which led on to the digital age we now live in. The web would not really function in an analog world.

Two things seem striking

1. The length of time between initial work and mainstream commercial application
2. The role of the US Govt in funding this work which, in all fairness once WWII was over, must have appeared to some to be a bunch of academics having fun with their pet projects. It was not at all clear where this would lead or whether any financial return was possible.

Government funding into Universities and Research institutions can really make a difference - even if it is beyond the period of a normal election cycle.