The business computing site Internet.com asked me to write an essay speculating on what the corporate IT landscape may look like ten years from now. The result, “IT in 2018: from Turing’s machine to the computing cloud,” is available now as a free pdf download – though registration is required.
Here’s how the essay begins:
In 1936, as the clouds of war gathered once again over Europe, a 24-year-old Cambridge University mathematician named Alan Turing invented the modern digital computer. At least, he invented the idea of the modern digital computer, which, as it turned out, was far more important than constructing any particular physical manifestation of that computer.
Turing’s theoretical apparatus, which he called a “universal computing machine,” was a simple one. In essence, it had the ability to read or write symbols – a one or a zero, say – on an endless roll of paper. It could only take one action at a time, reading or writing a single symbol, but it could remember what it had done, and over an infinite span of time it could take an infinite number of actions.
What Turing had created was, in the words of the historian George Dyson, “a single machine that can exactly duplicate the behavior of any other computing machine.” Any calculation, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a series of discrete, simple steps –an algorithm, or a code – and carried out by Turing’s machine. What that means, quoting Dyson again, is that “in principle all digital computers are equivalent; any machine that can count, take notes, and follow instructions can compute any computable function.” What it also means is this: “Software (coding) can always be substituted for hardware (switching).”
The only real constraints on a universal computing machine are the size of its memory and the speed with which it can carry out its calculations and transmit the results. With enough memory and enough speed, Turing’s work implies, a single computer could be programmed, with software code, to do all the work that is today done by all the other physical computers in the world.
And that is why the modern corporate data center, with all its complex and expensive stacks of machinery, is on the path to obsolescence …
Mr. Turing also pops up in my column in The Guardian today.