November 15, 1999
Volume 52, No. 12
Books in Review:
The Pattern on the Stone, reviewed by Ron Gould
Daniel Hillis, Basic Books 1998
Have you ever wondered why computers work? Have you ever wondered about the potential new directions for computing research? Have you ever wondered what computer scientists hope to someday achieve? These are very different yet fundamental questions about the digital revolution that is changing our lives on a daily basis. Even if you have wondered about such questions, you might have felt that the answers were far too technical to be understandable. Well, those answers are now very accessible in The Pattern on the Stone.
Author Daniel Hillis carefully walks us through the fundamental building blocks of computing without relying on technical details. His approach is to concentrate on the fundamental ideas of why things work. Using simple examples taken from everyday life, Hillis illustrates these concepts masterfully. He considers basics questions such as: How can machines record information (bits)? How can machines make decisions (logic circuits)? How can machines deal with complex processes that require memory of past events and make decisions based on that memory (finite state machines)? What is the difference between an algorithm and a heuristic, or between codes and encryption?
He also considers deeper questions such as: Why do mathematicians say some problems are not computable? What is artificial intelligence? Can a computer ever really learn? Can we ever go beyond the present electrical engineering limits to create new and totally different kinds of computers?
Why should these questions concern us? What does all this have to do with me? I think the answer to these questions is "self survival" in the digitally changing world. We are all being affected by the digital revolution. Those who claim they have nothing to do with computers and that computers are not changing their lives are merely in denial. Just the other day I stopped at the store for a few items and was greeted by the new "digital" cashier, where I scanned my own goods and paid electronically with my credit card.
During my last hotel stay, the key to my door was electronic (microprocessors at work). My last plane trip was taken with an electronic ticket purchased over the Web. And which of us has not listened to digitally produced music or gone to a movie in which seemingly half the scenes and even some of the actors are produced with computer graphics? All done with the power of computers.
But as much as our everyday existence is being affected, so too is our scholarly existence here at Emory. Scholarship and study are being done differently today thanks to technology. It has been a long time since I used a card catalog at the library. Now I check, even before I go to the library, that the reference I want is there. Sometimes the information is already available over the Web, and I can obtain it without ever leaving my office, as my colleagues often make articles available electronically so that anyone interested can obtain them quickly.
This electronic dissemination of information has added a new element of speed to the academic process, a process of knowledge dispersal that at times can drag on for years. I have often heard professors say that they were "plugged into their fields" and did not need to wait until something was published to know about it. Well, the phrase "plugged into their fields" has never before been so appropriate. As a researcher, I can communicate with coauthors faster and easier electronically. As a journal editor, I have received papers to edit, sent papers to referees and received referee reports electronically, again speeding the entire process. Electronic journals are capable of publishing an article the moment it is accepted, not several months later when enough articles have been gathered to constitute an entire printed issue. All these factors are speeding the scholarly process in most fields.
For students, Web courses (or Web-assisted courses) are becoming commonplace. The students ask questions of their instructors over e-mail, research papers using the Web, prepare work using word processors and generally use today's technology to assist them in their studies.
Thus, the answer to my most basic question of why someone might want to read this book seems simple: For any of us to take real advantage of technology, we need to have some idea of how it works and what it is capable of doing. We live in the "information age," and we at Emory are in the information business. It is simply good business to understand the marketplace and how to do business in that marketplace-now and in the digital future.
Ron Gould is a professor of math and computer science.