Computers and numbers

A pet peeve of mine is the ongoing public misperception that computers are really all about numbers. This is constantly reinforced by the mainstream (and even IT) media. Take, for instance, this quote from a BBC News story today:

The DNS acts as the internet’s address books and helps computers translate the website names people prefer (such as bbc.co.uk) into the numbers computers use (212.58.224.131).

What this quote means to say is “DNS transforms textual domain names (such as bbc.co.uk) into the numeric dotted-form (212.58.224.131) that is used by the Internet Protocol (IP)”. To the actual computer, both of these are just patterns of bits that represent symbols. A numeric interpretation is no more or less convenient for the computer than any other symbolic representation: it’s all just patterns of electrical charge as far as the machine is concerned. The inventors of IP could just as easily have chosen to use a DNS-style address representation. It happens that the sort of symbol shifting that computers do is very good for numerical tasks, and it also happens that we know a lot about how to do things with numbers, and so numbers are useful in a lot of applications of computers. In this case, the numeric form can be compactly represented, and efficiently manipulated. That was an engineering decision, not a fundamental limitation of computers.

My love of computers stems from a fascination with language, logic, and fundamental notions of representation and interpretation. Diving into computing has brought me into contact with all sorts of ideas from philosophy, physics, mathematics, linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, and AI. It saddens me that people miss out on these extraordinarily beautiful ideas because of a persistent belief that its all really about numbers, which puts a lot of people off.

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Author: Neil Madden

I am an independent IAM and application security consultant, with particular expertise in ForgeRock's OpenAM access management product. I have over 18 years of professional software development experience in commercial, government and academic settings. I have a PhD and 1st-class honours degree in Computer Science.

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