Mad About Science: Computers

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Get ready for some “Inception”-inspired action!

Today, I’m going to use a computer to tell you about computers, and once I’m done, this article will be edited, formatted and printed by at least one, perhaps multiple other computers.

So what is a computer? For some of us, it’s an essential tool in our everyday lives. For others, it’s a strange, confusing machine that is more of an inconvenience than it really should be, especially considering how reliant we are on its existence and function for day- to-day tasks.

Let’s start at the beginning: What is a computer?

Contrary to what it may seem, a computer is not a living organism or some evil monstrosity out to get you, even when the ocean of inevitable errors and crashes occurs at a key moment during a presentation or email to a loved one. Though we’ve made some incredible strides towards artificial intelligence, we’re nowhere near an army of rogue machines overthrowing humankind and creating a new society of sheer malice and contempt for the living.

A computer, at its most basic level, is just a machine. A machine, at its most basic level, is just something that we have manipulated to complete a certain task predictably, with minimal human intervention.

The science of computers goes much deeper than that; there are entire fields of Computer Science and Computer Engineering that dive into the technical aspects of this subject, from the mechanical, to the coding, to everything in-between and beyond.

For now, let’s just take a look at some different types of computers in the world.

Enter the calculator. If you’ve gone to school or worked in an office in the past 60 years, you’ve probably encountered one. When you think of a calculator, you probably think of the classic TI-83, the little solar-powered electronic calculator that just about everyone in the Western Hemisphere has played with at least once in their lives.

Did you know that the first true mechanical calculator dates back to somewhere between 2,700 and 2,300 BC? Some ancient Sumerian kid probably made his merchant father very angry by playing with what he must have thought was a toy in the middle of an important sheep barter.

Let’s move on to another familiar computer: your desktop PC. You’re probably pretty familiar with this device. It retrieves your news, it sends your emails, it gives you the exhilarating opportunity to see if anyone ‘liked’ your post about tacos (they did! They did!).

It might be a little slower than you’d like, this could even be a point of contention between you and your PC. Don’t get mad at it, it doesn’t know any better! At least it’s faster than one of its first ancestors, the IBM 5100, released in September 1975.

Upon its release, this PC could be yours for the low, low price of $8,975! This beast packed some real power in its 55 pound frame, with 16KB of RAM and a 1.9MHz processor. To put that in perspective, it would take the full computer’s power to even attempt to load a single image on your Facebook feed, and even then, it would only have been able to generate a few lines of pixels.

Let’s jump straight to the present. Every single millennial, teenager, and at this point, child over the age of eight has a smartphone and/or tablet. Are these technically computers? They’re phones and tablets!

Yes, they are indeed computers, incredibly powerful and portable computers. If you were to put your cellphone next to the guidance computer for the Apollo 11 spacecraft, the same computer that helped men travel from Earth to the moon, land, and then come back completely unharmed, your cellphone would be the equivalent of an alien lifeform 2,000 years more technologically advanced than us visiting a Neanderthal and trying to tell him about a vacation in the seventh dimension.

You must be thinking, if we hold that much power and knowledge in the palm of our hands, what are really, really big computers capable of nowadays?

Quite a lot, actually, but don’t count on using one to check your post on tacos for any more likes. They’re not designed for that at all.

Supercomputers are clusters of specialized computers set to complete ridiculous over-the-top tasks that traditional computers would lock up or melt down just trying to comprehend. Some examples of these things are simulations of the universe and huge events in astrophysics, colossal mathematical equations for research, global economic market simulation, things like that. The largest and most powerful Supercomputer in the world is Tianhe-2 in Guangzhou, China.

I’d like to end this article of terrifying awe on an uplifting and exciting note. One of the most powerful types of computers in the world is in one of the most unexpected places. Can you guess where?

Point a finger forward, turn it completely around and poke yourself in the forehead.

You look pretty silly doing that, but it’s right back there, behind a little bit of squishy flesh and bone. The human brain is by far one of the most powerful and versatile computers on the planet. While it’s true you probably can’t calculate mile-long equations in a fraction of a second, you can do things that even the most powerful computers in the world cannot do.

One of the most simple things that humans are pre-programmed from birth that still confounds computers even in this day and age is pretty surprising. Look ahead of you, hopefully you’ve moved your finger by now, and you can tell me what is in front of you: What stands out the most? How far is it in relation to you? What color is it? Is there something very far away in the background that is of little relevance to you, from where you’re standing? More than likely, you were able to identify everything within a fraction of a second, whether you realized it or not. Most computers cannot discern this without quite a bit of pre-programming and human intervention, and even then they are seldom as accurate as a human, especially when attempting to manipulate objects based on sight alone, like a human can.

The next time you fear for your life over the impending robot apocalypse, just remember that if they’re basing their destructive vision on sight alone. Chances are (for the next few years), they won’t be able to tell the difference between your soft human flesh and the tapestry of ruin and rubble behind you!

Live in solace, poking yourself in the forehead and liking posts about tacos knowing that in some ways, you are still smarter than most computers in one way or another!

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