Ken Steiglitz on The Discrete Charm of the Machine

SteiglitzA few short decades ago, we were informed by the smooth signals of analog television and radio; we communicated using our analog telephones; and we even computed with analog computers. Today our world is digital, built with zeros and ones. Why did this revolution occur? The Discrete Charm of the Machine explains, in an engaging and accessible manner, the varied physical and logical reasons behind this radical transformation. Ken Steiglitz examines why our information technology, the lifeblood of our civilization, became digital, and challenges us to think about where its future trajectory may lead.

What is the aim of the book?

The subtitle: To explain why the world became digital. Barely two generations ago our information machines—radio, TV, computers, telephones, phonographs, cameras—were analog. Information was represented by smoothly varying waves. Today all these devices are digital. Information is represented by bits, zeros and ones. We trace the reasons for this radical change, some based on fundamental physical principles, others on ideas from communication theory and computer science. At the end we arrive at the present age of the internet, dominated by digital communication, and finally greet the arrival of androids—the logical end of our current pursuit of artificial intelligence. 

What role did war play in this transformation?

Sadly, World War II was a major impetus to many of the developments leading to the digital world, mainly because of the need for better methods for decrypting intercepted secret messages and more powerful computation for building the atomic bomb. The following Cold War just increased the pressure. Business applications of computers and then, of course, the personal computer opened the floodgates for the machines that are today never far from our fingertips.

How did you come to study this subject?

I lived it. As an electrical engineering undergraduate I used both analog and digital computers. My first summer job was programming one of the few digital computers in Manhattan at the time, the IBM 704. In graduate school I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between analog and digital signal processing and my research for the next twenty years or so concentrated on digital signal processing: using computers to process sound and images in digital form.

What physical theory played—and continues to play—a key role in the revolution?

Quantum mechanics, without a doubt. The theory explains the essential nature of noise, which is the natural enemy of analog information; it makes possible the shrinkage and speedup of our electronics (Moore’s law); and it introduces the possibility of an entirely new kind of computer, the quantum computer, which can transcend the power of today’s conventional machines. Quantum mechanics shows that many aspects of the world are essentially discrete in nature, and the change from the classical physics of the nineteenth century to the quantum mechanics of the twentieth is mirrored in the development of our digital information machines.

What mathematical theory plays a key role in understanding the limitations of computers?

Complexity theory and the idea of an intractable problem, as developed by computer scientists. This theme is explored in Part III, first in terms of analog computers, then using Alan Turing’s abstraction of digital computation, which we now call the Turing machine. This leads to the formulation of the most important open question of computer science, does P equal NP? If P equals NP it would mean that any problem where solutions can just be checked fast can be solved fast. This seems like asking a lot and, in fact, most computer scientists believe that P does not equal NP. Problems as hard as any in NP are called NP-complete. The point is that NP-complete problems, like the famous traveling problem, seem to be intrinsically difficult, and cracking any one of them cracks them all.  Their essential difficulty manifests itself, mysteriously, in many different ways in the analog and digital worlds, suggesting, perhaps, that there is an underlying physical law at work. 

What important open question about physics (not mathematics) speaks to the relative power of digital and analog computers?

The extended Church-Turing thesis states that any reasonable computer can be simulated efficiently by a Turing machine. Informally, it means that no computer, even if analog, is more powerful (in an appropriately defined way) than the bare-boned, step-by-step, one-tape Turing machine. The question is open, but many computer scientists believe it to be true. This line of reasoning leads to an important conclusion: if the extended Church-Turing thesis is true, and if P is not equal to NP (which is widely believed), then the digital computer is all we need—Nature is not hiding any computational magic in the analog world.

What does all this have to do with artificial intelligence (AI)?

The brain uses information in both analog and digital form, and some have even suggested that it uses quantum computing. So, the argument goes, perhaps the brain has some special powers that cannot be captured by ordinary computers.

What does philosopher David Chalmers call the hard problem?

We finally reach—in the last chapter—the question of whether the androids we are building will ultimately be conscious. Chalmers calls this the hard problem, and some, including myself, think it unanswerable. An affirmative answer would have real and important consequences, despite the seemingly esoteric nature of the question. If machines can be conscious, and presumably also capable of suffering, then we have a moral responsibility to protect them, and—to put it in human terms—bring them up right. I propose that we must give the coming androids the benefit of the doubt; we owe them the same loving care that we as parents bestow on our biological offspring.

Where do we go from here?

A funny thing happens on the way from chapter 1 to 12. I begin with the modest plan of describing, in the simplest way I can, the ideas behind the analog-to-digital revolution.  We visit along the way some surprising tourist spots: the Antikythera mechanism, a 2000-year old analog computer built by the ancient Greeks; Jacquard’s embroidery machine with its breakthrough stored program; Ada Lovelace’s program for Babbage’s hypothetical computer, predating Alan Turing by a century; and B. F. Skinner’s pigeons trained in the manner of AI to be living smart bombs. We arrive at a collection of deep conjectures about the way the universe works and some challenging moral questions.

Ken Steiglitz is professor emeritus of computer science and senior scholar at Princeton University. His books include Combinatorial OptimizationA Digital Signal Processing Primer, and Snipers, Shills, and Sharks (Princeton). He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

T. L. Taylor on Watch Me Play: #Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming

TaylorEvery day thousands of people broadcast their gaming live to audiences over the internet using popular sites such as Twitch, which reaches more than one hundred million viewers a month. In these new platforms for interactive entertainment, big esports events featuring digital game competitors live stream globally, and audiences can interact with broadcasters—and each other—through chat in real time. What are the ramifications of this exploding online industry? Taking readers inside home studios and backstage at large esports events, Watch Me Play investigates the rise of game live streaming and how it is poised to alter how we understand media and audiences. The first book to explore the online phenomenon Twitch and live streaming games, Watch Me Play offers a vibrant look at the melding of private play and public entertainment.

What led you to write this book?

I was captivated by a live esports tournament broadcast I saw in 2012 and originally set out to write an article about how streaming was amplifying that industry well beyond its roots as a grassroots scene. As I started to research what was happening on Twitch, one of the main platforms for game broadcasting, I realized esports was only part of the story. Seeing so many people sharing their play and watching the cultural impact it was having, I quickly understood there was a much bigger research project at stake. What started as a small update on the esports story became a book not only on how people are transforming their private play into public entertainment but profound changes in media more broadly.

Has live streaming changed the culture around esports and gaming more generally?

Absolutely. It used to be a lot of work to be an esports fan. You had to know where to find recorded match videos, download special files to watch competitions, and follow all kinds of specialist sites. Live streaming has made it incredibly easy now to watch esports events and it’s not unusual for there to be matches being broadcast from around the world 24/7 on Twitch. It’s also made it much easier to keep up to date with your favorite teams and players, even watching their practices. For players who aspire to improve, they now have regular access to people they can try and learn from. Live streaming has helped expand and grown esports fandom. Beyond competitive gaming, live streaming has tapped into some of the pleasures sites like YouTube offered in terms of watching, and learning about, games. But it’s extended spectatorship to include real time interaction between viewers and broadcasters, the growth of new gaming communities, a whole new infrastructure around regulation and monetization, and lots of fascinating experiments in sharing live gaming content.

How has the increasing popularity of Twitch impacted live streaming on the Internet overall?

Though the platform originally operated as a niche site catering to gamers, it has gotten real momentum and attention broadly in a relatively short amount of time. More people started watching, and broadcasting themselves, and really big productions caught the eye of those outside gaming. Live streaming taps into a longstanding pleasure in game culture— watching others play and sharing your own— but also syncs with broader changes around media distribution (think about the rise of Netflix and “cord cutting” where people forego cable television entirely) and the tremendous energy of user-generated content. The platform has also been very adept at transforming itself and now not only hosts gaming but all kinds of creative and “in real life” shows. And in a fascinating twist, traditional media has started folding itself back into Twitch. Just the other day I watched the Washington Post’s channel where reporters were talking about the stories of the day and fielding questions in real time from the audience.

How is live streaming changing how we understand media and emerging technologies?

Live streaming offers us an opportunity to understand how various domains—the televisual, the internet, and gaming—can weave together on an emerging platform. It takes the notion of “social media” and “social TV” and extends it well beyond the typical conversations about spaces like Twitter or Facebook. Ultimately we need to do a better job understanding the links, amplifications, and interrelations between what we sometimes think of disparate technologies and sites. The case of game live streaming gives us a path into thinking not only about changes in game culture, but new socio-technical platforms and network life.

How do you predict Twitch will grow and evolve in the coming years?

I always say I’m a sociologist and not a futurologist so I’m hesitant to make any predictions. There are still too many contingencies (around everything from user practices to regulation and economics). What I will say is that while Twitch is itself a relatively new platform, it’s part of a much longer history of broadcasting on the internet going back to the earliest days of webcams in the 1990s, and it sits alongside a wide range of user-generated content that plays a huge role not only online, but in traditional media. The themes of sharing yourself, your play, and of the rise of co-creative media and alternative distribution practices isn’t going away anytime soon.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope readers will get a sense of the pleasures, and work, involved in game live streaming. Game live streamers who are broadcasting out of their homes give us insight into what it means to transform your private play into public entertainment. The book also tackles how live streaming is affecting other industries, not only esports but traditional media companies that are trying to understand—and catch up with—this slice of gaming. Finally, I hope readers will come to see how game live streaming offers a powerful case to thinking more broadly about things like regulation and governance—from community practices to law and corporate policy—on emerging internet platforms.  

T. L. Taylor is professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her books include Raising the Stakes and Play between Worlds.

Brian Kernighan on what we all need to know about computers

KernighanLaptops, tablets, cell phones, and smart watches: computers are inescapable. But even more are invisible, like those in appliances, cars, medical equipment, transportation systems, power grids, and weapons. We never see the myriad computers that quietly collect, share, and sometimes leak vast amounts of personal data about us, and often don’t consider the extent to which governments and companies increasingly monitor what we do. In Understanding the Digital World, Brian W. Kernighan explains, in clear terms, not only how computers and programming work, but also how computers influence our daily lives. Recently, Kernighan answered some questions about his new book.

Who is this book for? What kind of people are most likely to be interested?

BK: It’s a cliché, but it really is aimed at the proverbial “educated layman.” Everyone uses computers and phones for managing their lives and communicating with other people. So the book is for them. I do think that people who have some technical background will enjoy it, but will also find that it will help their less technical friends and family understand.

What’s the basic message of the book?

BK: Computers—laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, gadgets—are all around us. The Internet lets our computers communicate with us and with other computers all over the world. And there are billions of computers in infrastructure that we rely on without even realizing its existence. Computers and communications systems have changed our lives dramatically in the past couple of decades, and will continue to do so. So anyone who hopes to be at least somewhat informed ought to understand the basics of how such things work. One major concern has been the enormous increase in surveillance and a corresponding reduction in our personal privacy. We are under continuous monitoring by government agencies like the NSA in the United States and similar ones in other countries. At the same time, commercial interests track everything we do online and with our phones. Some of this is acceptable, but in my opinion, it’s gone way too far. It’s vital that we understand better what is being done and how to reduce the tracking and spying. The more we understand about how these systems work, the more we can defend ourselves, while still taking advantage of the many benefits they provide. For example, it’s quite possible to explore interesting and useful web sites without being continuously tracked. You don’t have to reveal everything about yourself to social networks. But you have to know something about how to set up some defenses. More generally, I’m trying to help the reader to reach a better than superficial understanding of how computers work, what software is and how it’s created, and how the Internet and the Web operate. Going just a little deeper into these is totally within the grasp of anyone. The more you know, the better off you will be; knowing even a little about these topics will put you ahead of the large majority of people, and will protect you from any number of foolish behaviors.

Can you give us an example of how to defend ourselves against tracking by web sites?

BK: Whenever you visit a web site, a record is made of your visit, often by dozens of systems that are collecting information that can be used for targeted advertising. It’s easy to reduce this kind of tracking by turning off third-party cookies and by installing some ad-blocking software. You can still use the primary site, but you don’t give away much if anything to the trackers, so the spread of information about you is more limited.

If I don’t care if companies know what sites I visit, why should I be worried?

BK: “I’ve got nothing to hide,” spoken by an individual, or “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” offered by a government, are pernicious ideas. They frame the discussion in such a way as to concede the point at the beginning. Of course you have nothing to hide. If that’s true, would you mind showing me your tax returns? How did you vote in the last election? What’s your salary? Could I have your social security number? Could you tell me who you’ve called in the past year? Of course not—most of your life is no one else’s business.

What’s the one thing that you would advise everyone to do right now to improve their online privacy and security?

BK: Just one thing? Learn more about how your computer and your phone work, how the Internet works, and how to use all of them wisely. But I would add some specific recommendations, all of which are easy and worthwhile. First, in your browser, install defensive extensions like like AdBlock and Ghostery, and turn off third-party cookies. This will take you less than ten minutes and will cut your exposure by at least a factor of ten. Second, make sure that your computer is backed up all the time; this protects you against hardware failure and your own mistakes (both of which are not uncommon), and also against ransomware (though that is much less a risk if you are alert and have turned on your defenses). Third, use different passwords for different sites; that way, if one account is compromised, others will not be. And don’t use your Facebook or Google account to log in to other sites; that increases your vulnerability and gives away information about you for minor convenience. Finally, be very wary about clicking on links in email that have even the faintest hint of something wrong. Phishing attacks are one of the most common ways that accounts are compromised and identities stolen.

KernighanBrian W. Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is the coauthor of ten other books, including the computing classic The C Programming Language (Prentice Hall). He is the author of Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security.