As we near the end of another year and return to the quiet, reprise of everyday life, we’re offered an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve accomplished over the previous 365 days. After the family festivities of the holiday season have ended, we’re reminded that a look back on our achievements can help us face the coming challenge of the imminent new year. For me, it’s a chance to remind myself of how much I haven’t accomplished, how much I have left to do.
John MacCormick, in his book Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers, asks us to consider two of the greatest ideas in not just computing history, but history in general:
- In the 1930s, before the first digital computer has even been built, a British genius founds the field of computer science, and then goes on to prove that certain problems cannot be solved by any computer to be built in the future, no matter how fast, powerful, or cleverly designed.
- In 1948, a scientist working at a telephone company publishes a paper that founds the field of information theory. His work will allow computers to transmit a message with perfect accuracy even when most of the data is corrupted by interference.
Before the first half of the 20th century was complete, Alan Turing (the British genius mentioned above) and Claude Shannon (the Bell Labs’ scientist) started us down a path that would revolutionize the way we communicate, interact with one another, and process information. Of course, neither Turing nor Shannon operated in a vacuum. They were a part of a very select group of other giants in computing history: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Vannevar Bush, and George Stibitz among countless others. All of them were highly motivated, driven individuals.
“I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may,” said Lovelace, “my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me, how the matter in question was first thought of or arrived at, etc., etc.”
It’s almost irreverent to describe these intellectual titans as just smart. They were gifted, in every sense of the word. For example, Turing anticipated the general, widespread acceptance of machine intelligence by the general population before computers were even available to the consuming public. “I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted," Turing said in 1947. Turns out, he was right.
So, where does this leave us as we contemplate our successes and failures over the previous year? What should we do next year to be more prolific and fruitful? How can we be better in 2016?
Grace Hopper, one of the first programmers of the Mark I computer and the inventor of the first compiler, gives us some good advice. "Humans are allergic to change,” she said. “They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.' I try to fight that. That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise."
Most of us are normal people, not geniuses or prodigies. We aren’t the next Alan Turing, Grace Hopper, or Ada Lovelace. But, we are intelligent, creative beings. Sometimes we forget that. Around this time of year, some of us tend to count up how we’ve failed over the preceding 12 months. We revel in how much worse off the world is.
And, you know, maybe it is. Maybe things are bad. Maybe you didn’t do all you wanted to last year. But, maybe each new year — each new day — offers an opportunity to change things. To make them better. Instead of watching the clock turn round as it always has, perhaps we need more counter-clockwise clocks.