New Class: Residential College, RC SS460. Winter 2005. Perspectives in Technology

Universal Computation and the Information Age:
    From a theorem in mathematical logic, to the emergence of computers,
    ... and the reorganization of social-economic life

Instructor: Thomas W. O'Donnell, Ph.D.
The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1120
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The entire Information Age rests upon the discovery of a ``universal computer'' by Alan Turing in a 1936 paper in mathematical logic.  Sixty years later, the world is being  remade by this concept. Production, farming, communications, entertainment, education, business, finance, government and warfare are all profoundly dependent on universal computers. No single intellectual achievement has ever had such wide-ranging, immediate and totally unexpected results, yet the basic idea and how it has shaped technology and society is little understood.  See: story is examined in three interrelated aspects of this course:

  • Scientific-intellectual pre-history. We survey the 250-year struggle of philosophically inclined mathematicians interested in the foundations of mathematics, but who ended up inventing computers. This trail includes: Leibnitz (universal characteristic), Boole (propositional logic), Peano (axiomatic arithmetic), Frege (first order logic, FOL), Hilbert, Russell-Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Godel (rejection of logical positivism, completeness of FOL, and undecidability), Turing (the Entschiedungsproblem and Turing machines), and Von Neumann (modern computer architecture).
  • Development of computer technology. Next, we see how the earliest computers were built in Germany, England and the USA just before and during W.W.II for scientific calculations and for  breaking codes, computing artillery trajectories, designing the atom bomb, etc. We will see how physicists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists built ever-faster and smaller universal computers by employing punched tapes and cards, pneumatic switches, solenoid relays, magnetic systems and vacuum tubes, until eventually, using quantum mechanics, they developed solid-state electronics, and simultaneously produced the field of information theory and computer science. We also see how the deep significance of the Church-Turing theorem  only slowly became apparent to researchers, directly leading to hardware and software differentiation, operating systems, compilers and higher-level languages, etc., and to discovering that computers could replace business machines for bureaucratic tasks (the Control Revolution).
  • Business, production and social relations. Once in the hands of capitalist enterprises and entrepreneurs, universal computers affected: (Phase I) A revolution in social production (in Japan, N. Europe, and later the US from circa1980), bringing the Ford-Taylor mass-production era to a close. This resulted from new digital control technologies, programmable logic controllers, automation and, finally, robotization of production and smart machines, flexible manufacturing, just-in-time production, etc., and lately nano-technology, self-assembled systems, etc. From this a new type of working and professional class emerges, including ``knowledge workers'' performing ``infomated work''---computer-mediated work largely freed from physical labor, with highly transportable skills dependent on formal and constant education. (Phase II) social networks: The latest development of the capitalist information age (from circa 1990) involves new electronic networks of production, commerce and personal life principally associated with the internet and world-wide web---a marriage of communication with distributed universal-computation machines (i.e., micro computers). We end by considering competing sociological theories regarding the potential created for employees and others in the new economy by universal computation when manifested in societal form; the relation between science, technology and society (philosophical monism); theories of technological determinism, etc.
Requirements: There will be two midterms testing for comprehension and insight and a final independent research paper. The class is open to juniors, seniors and interested graduate students, with sophomores by permission of instructor, and requires active participation in discussions of the readings.