Brave New Digital World – review of Turing’s Cathedral

Review by Alex Klaushofer.

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

As other reviewers have pointed out, Turing’s Cathedral, the book which documents the fulfillment of Alan Turing’s vision of a ‘universal machine’ capable of thought, is a sprawling entity, full of detail and digression that frequently threaten its coherence.

Part history of the building of one of the first computers in Princeton in the 1940s, part biography of the key figures involved, the real interest of the book is perhaps the way it bridges the esoteric mathematical world which spawned digital life and the implications for humankind. In this respect, it presents an educational remedy for the fact that, despite their ubiquity, few lay people have a grasp of the principles underlying computers.

And while the initial sections contain paragraphs whose mathematical content gave your arts-graduate correspondent a strong urge to weep, in the third part of the book, this is done with admirable clarity. Recounting Turing’s attempts to put mathematical logic into the service of everyday tasks, Dyson writes: ‘After Turing, numbers began doing things.’ (p 250) He goes on to explain how an internet search unites deterministic replication with human choices to realise Turing’s conception of an ‘oracle machine’ capable of achieving more than was ever possible previously.

At this point, things get really interesting. ‘Are we searching the search engines, or are search engines searching us?’ asks Dyson. (p 264) He suggests that we are now on the brink of a computer-led future, which, depending on depending on your point of view, is either visionary or dystopic: ‘Sixty-some years ago, biochemical organisms began to assemble digital computers. Now digital computers are beginning to assemble biochemical organisms.Viewed from a distance, this looks like part of a life cycle. But which part? Are biochemical organisms the larval phase of digital computers? Or are digital computers the larval phase of biochemical organisms?’ (p 291)

In his subsequent commentary, Dyson argues that the prospect of computers taking over from humans the tasks we are manifestly so bad at – running countries, etc – could only be welcomed by any sensible person. A visit to the best example of digital utopia so far – Google’s headquarters in California, where everyone was ‘youthful, healthy, happy, and exceptionally well-fed’, impresses him hugely.

If that strikes you as eerily Brave New Worldish, it also occurs to Dyson that the age of computers may have a dark side. What, he asks, if the price of machines that think is people who don’t? Or, to put it in a way that he doesn’t, can computers really live our lives for us?

It’s all more complicated than the simple opposition of utopia/dystopia allows. Thanks to the developments detailed by Dyson, an era of unprecedented change may well be underway, but we’re only just beginning to understand it.

A later blog will examine developments that evoke the possibility of computers replacing the human writer.