The World Inside The Computer
Fred D'Ignazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. He is presently working on two major projects: he is writing a series of books on how to create graphics-and-sound adventure games.
He is also working on a computer mystery-and-adventure series for young people.
As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device. His column appears monthly in COMPUTE!
Last issue we looked at the history, and some of the future possibilities, for the microelectronics world. We closed with the question, "What does all this have to do with our children?"...
Architects Of The Micro World
Our journey into the world inside the computer might be like some exotic travel story. It might be like Jack London telling tales from the far north, or like Gulliver describing his voyage to Lilliput. It might be far removed from our everyday experience and the concerns of us and our children.
Except it's not.
All of the changes, the fascinating developments in chip design and technology, might not be expected for many years, and these new designers might all be faceless adult experts, hidden away inside corporate and university labs, performing mysterious feats of electronic alchemy.
Except they're not.
Just a couple years ago, Lynn Conway of Xerox and Carver Mead of Caltech wrote a book called An Introduction to VLSI Systems (Addison-Wesley, 1980). In it, and in college courses they taught, Conway and Mead called for a new generation of chip designers – architects of the micro world. Conway and Mead proved that, using automated drafting tools (CAD/CAM – Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing), even graduate students at universities could design custom-made computer chips. And they didn't have to be engineers or experts in computer logic.
Young people, by the thousands, are following the lead of Conway and Meade's students, and are designing custom-made chips and revolutionary new kinds of computers. They treat the basic components – the transistors, gates and memory cells – like "bristle blocks." They sit in front of a computer keyboard, press buttons, and the computer fits the bristle blocks together, and displays the mazelike circuit on a color picture screen. When the chip is finished, the student and his teacher send the design to a "silicon foundry" – a regional center that prints the chip on a sliver of silicon.
Within days, the student has the chip back and can plug it into a circuit board and turn on the power. The chip might be a new kind of computer, a "graphics engine" specializing in high-speed, animated color pictures, or a music-synthesis chip capable of making the computer sound like a bass guitar or a pipe organ.
For two decades, chip design was done exclusively by experts at major corporations, such as Intel, Texas Instruments, and Motorola. Now, all this has changed, due to the new CAD/CAM tools, to the new microminiaturization (VLSI – Very Large-Scale Integration) of circuits, and to Conway and Meade's "paint-by-numbers" approach to chip design.
Today, computer software is being written and sold by thousands of people, all over the world. It is a cottage industry performed in the home by a lot of low-budget suppliers. Big companies are becoming software publishers and distributors for the software "authors."
Designing new computer chips with the aid of intelligent programs and color graphics.
CREDIT: courtesy of Henry Fuchs and the Department of Computer Science, University of North Carolina. Photo by Mike Pique.
Similarly, in just a few years we will probably see a cottage industry of chip authors. CAD/CAM equipment will be rented or cheap enough to install in the home. "Intelligent" chip design programs, like Xerox's Palladio, will work with young chip designers. The programs will check the young people's designs for mistakes, suggest new designs of their own, and explain the trade-offs between different designs.
Chip architects are now appearing in colleges and universities. They will soon appear in high school. They will design thousands, even millions of new computers. The best computers will find their way to the marketplace. Large "chip foundries" will print the chips. Large "chip publishers" will market them.
"It's like painting with numbers." Inventing a new computer may someday be as easy as writing a game program in BASIC.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Floyd James, Henry Fuchs and the Department of Computer Science, University of North Carolina. Photo by Jim Erickson, Raleigh News & Observer.
The Playdough Computer
What do we mean by "personal computers", or by "personal computing"?
Until now, we meant one person, one machine (Portia Isaacson's definition).
Personal computing has made the computer accessible to the average person, the non-expert. Even little kids can sit down in front of the family's home computer and use it to learn or play a game.
But personal computing will soon have an added meaning. It will mean computing on a machine we designed ourself. Even young people will be able to fashion their own computers, like they build an airplane or castle from playdough or clay. Everyone will have the opportunity to become a computer designer – a computer artist, an architect of the micro world.
Naturally, airplanes made of clay do not fly. And computers made by young children may not compute. Still, they will be an important exercise in creativity. And, unlike models made from clay or plastic, simple computer models can gradually become more sophisticated and realistic. They can be a first step toward building real chips and computers that work.
Many of today's most innovative, most successful software entrepreneurs are young people, of college or high-school age. In the near future, young people will be some of the most creative chip architects, artists, and inventors.
Your Kids: The Computer's Creators
The purpose of these first columns has been to demonstrate the relevance and the reality of the world inside the computer – to all of us and to our children.
Although the surface of the computer will continue to remain the same, the computer's insides will soon change dramatically. New computers will soon be created with capabilities exceeding our wildest dreams. The revolutionary new computers will be molded from youthful imaginations. Young people will be the computers' creators.
Creating the tiny inhabitants of the world inside the computer, using advanced computer graphics, animation, and Artificial Intelligence. Of course, the inhabitants need not be human. They might be sprites or turtles — or whatever else you can imagine.
CREDIT: Charles Csuri and Ohio State University Computer Graphics Laboratory.
Fantasy, Turtles, and Sprites
The present trend toward black-box computers is positive, in that it is encouraging millions of people to try personal computing. But don't let this trend "distance" you or your children from the world inside the computer. The real action is taking place under the computer's "hood."
How do you and your children learn more about the world inside the computer? How can you learn today?
Computer micro-worlds are so enchanting, so exciting that they can be a pleasure to learn about and explore. Pretend that you and your children are pioneers. I hope these first columns have given you some ideas about where you can focus your pioneering.
But what about a pioneering vehicle – a land rover, jeep, or canoe? After all, sophisticated computer-design tools, such as CAD/CAM machines, still aren't off-the-shelf items, sold at your local Radio Shack for $19.95. How can you explore the world inside the computer without the proper tools?
Fortunately, the first tools are now appearing. They are, first of all, what Bob Albrecht calls the "Rainbow Computers" — the sound-and-color machines that retail for less than five hundred dollars. The Sinclair ZX 81 A, the low-cost VIC machines, the TI 99/4A, the TRS-80 Color Computer, and the Atari 400 are all rainbow computers. They provide an environment for simulating the world inside the computer. Using the rainbow computers, you can build models of that world with computer programs.
What kind of programs? You can use a language like BASIC. But new languages are now appearing that make superior micro-world building tools. These languages are Atari PILOT and the various versions of LOGO, including Apple LOGO and TI LOGO.
When you write a program in BASIC, you are like a chef inventing a recipe for a new food dish. The recipe itself is the list of steps you must follow (the algorithm) to get the program to perform some function. To make the recipe work, you need to add ingredients in a precise amount and in the proper order. In a program, these ingredients are your data.
But programming in the new languages – especially LOGO – is quite different. You are no longer a chef working with a recipe and ingredients. Now you are a band leader conducting a band of jazz musicians, or a film director overseeing the efforts of a diverse bunch of live actors.
When you program in BASIC, you are dealing with inert objects and structures, and the computer marches in lockstep, doing one thing at a time.
On the other hand, when you program in LOGO, an actors language, you treat the computer like a tiny world. You are the world's creator. You define the world's laws. You populate the world with tiny creatures. TI's LOGO world comes with "canned" sprites. Various LOGO, PILOT, and PASCAL worlds come with prepackaged, artistic turtles.*
And, using these languages, you can also create other beings drawn purely from your own imagination.
When you type RUN, you turn the world on. You breathe life into your creatures and set them in motion. All together. All at the same time.
In upcoming columns, I will develop "computer world" programs written in BASIC, in Atari PILOT and in Apple and TI LOGO. Also, you should consult David Thornburg's column, "Friends of the Turtle," which appears each month in COMPUTE! (And take a look at the references at the end of this month's column.)
The Computer World Goes to Hollywood
The world inside the computer is a little known and obscure place. But it won't be for long.
This summer (on July 9th), Walt Disney Productions will be releasing the long-awaited film, TRON. The hero of TRON is a young computer genius who gets transported to the world inside the computer – Hollywood style.
*I am excited about Alan Kay's new job as Chief Scientist at Atari. Kay is the brilliant scientist who helped create Xerox's Smalltalk language system, and the Xerox Altos and Star computers. Smalltalk is one of the most powerful "Actor" languages. It lets you easily create computer worlds filled with active, interacting beings, processes, and events. Two Smalltalk-type machines, code-named, "Mackintosh" and "Lisa," are under development at Apple Computer Company. And it is likely that at Atari, Kay will be developing Smalltalk-type languages that will run on Atari computers.
The hero, Flynn, is the owner of a video game arcade and the inventor of fabulous new game programs. But the programs are stolen by a video game company. To recover his programs, Flynn breaks into the company's computer system but is caught by the computer's intelligent control program. The evil program, MCP, uses a laser to blast Flynn into electronic particles.
What do inhabitants of the world inside the computer look like? If you entered a computer, what would you look like? This is Walt Disney Productions' answer in its new movie TRON.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Walt Disney Productions. Copyright 1982, Walt Disney Productions.
Somehow Flynn survives. When he awakens, he is no longer in the real world. Instead, he has entered the world inside the computer. But he has entered the world as a condemned prisoner. The control program places him on a huge video game grid and sentences him to die.
The fantasy world inside the computer in Walt Disney's new movie TRON.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Walt Disney Productions. Copyright 1982, Walt Disney Productions.
Several leading computer graphics firms have helped Disney produce the film. Their vision of the world inside the computer is sure to be startling, enchanting, and exciting.
But it is only one vision. There are endless others. And you and your family can create them.
The metaphor of the "world inside the computer" will soon become widely known. Already, primitive worlds exist in the form of arcade and home video games. The mazes, rockets, monsters, and little people you see on the game screen emerge from their silicon "homes" when the game is turned on. They are swiftly becoming more lifelike and realistic.
A Rabbi In A Box
Have you ever been to a novelty store and seen the Thing-in-a-Box? The box is really a small, black, plastic cube. You flip an ON switch, and the cube begins whirring strangely. Then the top of the cube opens, and a little green hand pokes out, knocks the switch to OFF, and, in the blink of an eye, disappears back inside the cube.
After watching the box in action, you have the strong impression that someone – or something – is living inside.
We may soon have the same impression about our personal computer.
Personal computers may soon have Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs and AI chips. Your computer may become an "intelligent assistant" that can think, reason, even learn. It will be a "fluent" computer that can carry on a casual conversation with you in normal English. If your family or friends won't listen to you, you will be able to turn on the computer and have a good heart-to-heart discussion with a machine.
AI research, tools, and technology are hot items. After almost four decades of research, AI professors have tied their bedsheets and pillow cases together into a rope, and have descended the ivory tower. Suddenly, at the same time their feet touch the ground, AI is becoming a big business.
What kind of big business? The hottest item in AI is known as knowledge engineering. AI scientists have created "expert systems" – chip-sized electronic clones of human experts. Already, these intelligent programs have been put to work diagnosing lung diseases, locating mineral deposits, and designing new clothing fashions. For a relatively small price, you will soon be able to have a world-class expert working alongside you, even if you are a lonely country doctor, or an oceanologist on an oil platform in the turbulent North Atlantic.
Putting a human-like, intelligent program on a chip is like having a wise slave who lives in a package of gum, or like a genie who lives inside a music box. We will very shortly see experts-in-a-box, advisors-in-a-box, and teachers-in-a-box. The knowledge, expertise, and personality of a doctor, a minister, a psychoanalyst, or a lawyer can be "mined" and captured on a home computer in the form of a small, inexpensive chip. AI companies like Cognitive Systems, Inc., Computer Thought Corporation, and Machine Intelligence Corporation are already developing the first AI software for personal computers.
"Know thyself," is an ancient prescription and a unique ability of human beings. Only humans seem to have a strongly developed sense of self-consciousness and self-awareness.
But not for long.
New computer chips are being developed with "expert" programs that know how to design other computer chips. These chips are being fed huge quantities of knowledge. (Some use optical scanners and hungrily read all sorts of technical papers and reports). What do they learn? They are learning about themselves, and about others of their kind. They are being endowed with a primitive sense of self-awareness.
Imagine someday when entire micro universes inside the computer – the chip neighborhoods, cities, and worlds – all have a sense of self-knowledge and self-consciousness. This awareness will only partly be human. Much of it will be non-human, perhaps even alien. It will be suited to the chips' electronic, inorganic bodies and to the complicated knowledge pattern stored in their local and global memories.
One day you and your children may design your own chips and create your own real computer worlds. Yet, even today, you can imagine them, then implement them in PASCAL, PILOT, BASIC or LOGO. Right now the worlds are fanciful, the blue-sky stuff of fantasy and magic. But by inventing them and building them into programs, you and your kids will gain insight into the real computer worlds that await you. These worlds and the tools to fashion them already exist as blueprints and prototypes in scientists' labs. Before you know it, they will enter your office, your classroom, and your home.
Anacker, W. (IBM) Computing at 4 Degrees Kelvin. IEEE Spectrum. May 1979. Page 26.
Business Week (Cover Story). Artificial Intelligence. March 8, 1982. Page 66.
Business Week (Special Report). The '80s Look in Chips: Custom, Not Standard. January 18, 1982. Page 36D.
Business Week (Cover Story). Japan's Strategy for the '80s. December 14, 1981. Page 39.
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice (Notes and Introduction by Martin Gardner). New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. 1960.
Computer Design Liquid Immersion Technology Cools Supercomputer's Circuits. February 1982. Page 58.
Conway, Lynn and Carver Mead. An Introduction to VLSI Systems. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1980.
Cromie, William J. and Harold A. Rodgers. The Big Squeeze: Packing More Circuitry into Less Space. Technology Illustrated. February/March 1982. Page 55.
D'Ignazio, Fred. (Illustrations by Stan Gilliam.) Katie and the Computer. Morristown, NJ: Creative Computing Press. 1979.
D'Ignazio, Fred. Small Computers: Exploring Their Technology and Future. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc. 1981.
Matisoo, Juri. The Superconducting Computer. Scientific American. May 1980. Page 50.
Science. Are VLSI Microcircuits Too Hard to Design? July 11, 1980. Page 258.
Price, Derek de Solla. 3-D Intelligence. Science Digest. January 1982. Page 40.
Sweetnam, George. The Incredible Shrinking Microcircuit. Science Digest. January 1982. Page 80.
PILOT And LOGO Addresses
Apple LOGO. Terrapin, Inc., 678 Massachusetts Avenue #205, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139. (617/492-8816)
Atari PILOT. Atari, Inc., 1196 Borregas Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94086. (408/745-2000)
TI LOGO. Texas Instruments Inc., P. O. Box 10508, M/S 5849, Lubbock, TX 79408. (806/741-2978)
Young Peoples' LOGO Association (YPLA), 1208 Hillsdale Drive, Richardson, TX 75081.
Books And Articles
Abelson, Harold. Logo. Peterborough, New Hampshire: Byte Books (McGraw-Hill). 1982.
Abelson, Harold and Andrea diSessa. Turtle Geometry: The Computer as a Medium for Exploring Mathematics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 1981.
BYTE. Special Issue on Smalltalk. August 1981.
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1980.