The Third Law
The history of computing can be divided into an Old Testament and a New Testament: before and after electronic digital computers and the codes they spawned proliferated across the earth. The Old Testament prophets, who delivered the underlying logic, included Thomas Hobbes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The New Testament prophets included Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, and Norbert Wiener. They delivered the machines.
Alan Turing wondered what it would take for machines to become intelligent. John von Neumann wondered what it would take for machines to self-reproduce. Claude Shannon wondered what it would take for machines to communicate reliably, no matter how much noise intervened. Norbert Wiener wondered how long it would take for machines to assume control.
Wiener’s warnings about control systems beyond human control appeared in 1949, just as the first generation of stored-program electronic digital computers were introduced. These systems required direct supervision by human programmers, undermining his concerns. What’s the problem, as long as programmers are in control of the machines? Ever since, debate over the risks of autonomous control has remained associated with the debate over the powers and limitations of digitally coded machines. Despite their astonishing powers, little real autonomy has been observed. This is a dangerous assumption. What if digital computing is being superseded by something else?
Electronics underwent two fundamental transitions over the past hundred years: from analog to digital and from vacuum tubes to solid state. That these transitions occurred together does not mean they are inextricably linked. Just as digital computation was implemented using vacuum tube components, analog computation can be implemented in solid state. Analog computation is alive and well, even though vacuum tubes are commercially extinct.
There is no precise distinction between analog and digital computing. In general, digital computing deals with integers, binary sequences, deterministic logic, and time that is idealized into discrete increments, whereas analog computing deals with real numbers, nondeterministic logic, and continuous functions, including time as it exists as a continuum in the real world.