From dictatorship to democracy

Back when John van Neumann invented his version of computer architecture, he predicted beforehand what would be its limitation in the future. The machine used simple binary bits that paved the way for the booming computer industry. Today, this system is used within almost every device. Van Neumann knew that his machine would ultimately not suffice, because its architecture did not allow for mistakes. Since chains of operations occur linearly, a single flip of a bit would most likely lead to panic, often expressed by the famous ‘blue screen of death’. With exponentially increasing memory of modern systems, the proposed boundaries are already surpassed by a large margin. Therefore, the likelihood of mistakes increases continuously. In light of this problem David Ackley, associate professor in Computer Sciences from the University of New Mexico, presented his technique of Robust-first Computing.

The main message that David Ackley conveyed in his talk was the fact that current computing systems are ultimately non-securable. It is limited by a focus on efficiency, which comes at a cost: small mistakes or changes will lead to large consequences. To fight this and make computers smart again, Ackley designed the ‘Movable Feast Machine’, which revolutionizes computer architecture from its core. It mimics processes of life with a method called Robust-first Computing, leading to a more resilient method of computation. This method, as life on earth, strives towards robustness by being provided with choices. Here, memory is no longer branded by ones and zeroes, but autonomously governs its content. Where normally the CPU dictator rules over his mindless RAM-minions, in this machine the bits are given their first voting rights.

Using programmable ‘elements’, all kinds of patterns can be formed which influence choices made by adjacent parts of memory. Visualised by a small simulation, David Ackley showed how this dynamic system achieves its robustness. Armed with an eraser-tool (to simulate the consequence of any kind of data-loss) he tried to attack the data that was being computed, without any success. After some time, the system fixed itself to the original state. Even more impressive are the simulations posted on his YouTube-channel, for instance depicting a complete city of elements and bits. This city completely regenerated itself after a data-bomb with the ‘Nuke’ function.

The autonomy that is provided to the bits really shows how artificial life is realized within technology. David Ackley believes that whether anything is deemed alive, should not be a yes/no-question. These preserved, dynamic patterns that can self-regenerate should therefore fall somewhere in between the spectrum. In a fashion, the emancipation of bits that he provides does seem like the start of a life-like democracy.

By Ivar Dilweg


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