The First 5 Kilobytes are the Hardest

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Evolution in the digital universe has been driven, since the beginning, partly by improvements in code and partly by improvements in machines. Alan Turing’s one-dimensional model of universal computation of 1936 led directly to John von Neumann’s 5-kilobyte, two-dimensional implementation of 1946. The resulting address matrix, still in place after sixty years, is how the machines know where to find the code, and how the code knows where to find the machines. Mapping real-world correspondence to data structures populating a storage matrix currently expanding by some 5 trillion bits per second is the challenge that brings us here.

Photo of George Dyson

George Dyson

George Dyson is a historian of technology whose interests have included the development (and redevelopment) of the Aleut kayak (Baidarka, 1986), the evolution of digital computing and telecommunications (Darwin Among the Machines, 1997), and a path not taken into space (Project Orion, 2002). His latest book, Turing’s Cathedral: The origins of the digital universe, illuminates the transition from numbers that mean things to numbers that do things in the aftermath of World War II.

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