Turing's Curse - Is There Nothing New Under The Sun?
Written by Mike James   
Saturday, 27 July 2013

The pace of technological change has never been faster, but perhaps it is not quite as fast as you might think. John Graham-Cumming's talk at OSCON presents evidence that it's all been done before. 

This is an interesting video that claims that most of the things that we think of as being new and breakthrough were invented a long time ago. All we have been doing is waiting for them to come down in price and improve their performance.

It is a fun video because it starts you thinking to try and come up with a technology that is really, really new and doesn't have the slightest glimmer of being thought of 30 years ago. 

However the thesis isn't just that our new stuff is old but that there is a high water mark in our innovation - after which not a lot happened. The date for this high water mark is 1983, the year of Star Wars. 

turingscurse

Watch the video and see if you are any more successful at offering suggestions for new ideas.

 

  

So what, you may ask?


Well the first conclusion is that this is the reason that software patents are so pointless. If it's all been done before, how can you have a new idea? It is the reason that whenever I read a patent I almost immediately think "prior art". Graham-Cumming also argues that this closed body of knowledge being compact enough to be learned means that studying computer science is worthwhile and rewarding. Knowing computer science not only means you don't have to reinvent the wheel it also means that you have a full kit of parts to solve problems with.

But why "Turing's Curse"? The reason for the name relates to the halting problem. It is impossible to write a program that can decide if any arbitrary program will halt. This is taken as a comment on the difficulty of building debuggers and debugging in general. The argument is that the missing piece of the toolkit is the automatic debugger. This is where we have had nothing new and really need something new since the start of computing. 

Is 1983 the watershed? 

I'd say it very possibly was. The nature of our subject is that once you have grasped the idea of a general purpose computer, and the power of software, then a lot of things that were unthinkable before become completely obvious. Many of the technological innovations that litter the history up to 1983 are more about daring to think big than anything really innovative. It is the other reason that software patents are generally rubbish - it really is all so obvious, if only you think about it and think about it big enough. 

turingscurse

Please submit a comment if you think you have something that wasn't thought of before 1983

More Information

OSCON 2013 Keynote: Turing's Curse

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Vannevar Bush

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