Archive of UserLand's first discussion group, started October 5, 1998.

The web as a Turing Machine

Author:Dave Winer
Posted:9/12/1999; 8:47:24 PM
Topic:The web as a Turing Machine
Msg #:10950
Prev/Next:10949 / 10951

What is a Turing Machine?

In 1936, before the age of computers, Alan Turing, an English mathematician working at Princeton University defined what has come to be known as a "Turing Machine". It's a very simple specification that defines what a computer is. Three simple components, a tape reader, a tape writer, and a processor. The processor reads information from the tape, transforms it, and writes the transformed data to the output tape.

Many of today's everyday objects fit the Turing model. A digital cellphone is a Turing Machine -- its input tape is the keypad, and the output tape is its memory. If your refrigerator, car, bicycle, or stereo has a computer in it, it can be modeled as a Turing Machine.

Turing discovered the mathematics of computers, and his model still works, and probably always will work, to simplify the understanding of what we do with computers.

The web as a Turing machine

Now, if so many things are computers, is the web also a computer, according to Turing's mathematics? Well, yes and no. Much of the web is static -- pages that do not respond to input. Those are not Turing. But more of the web is dynamic, and that part fits the Turing model, and therefore, is just like any other computer you might encounter.

And there's a behind-the-scenes, invisible communication network that pushes information between servers. It's the "backend" of the Internet, and in this area, the Turingness is a hodgepodge of incompatible weakly supported and mostly isolated worlds that, while they are powerful Turing machines, they can't work with each other, and this lack of standardization is the motivation behind the work we have been doing with Microsoft.

The goal, simply put, is to create a standard way for Turing Machines to call other Turing Machines, with the Internet as the wire that connects them. This is as far-reaching a vision as Sun's Java, but it's even bigger than Java, because it includes Java and every other programming language running on any operating system that can connect to the web and understand XML, which is to say everywhere that there's life today.

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