Class began with a discussion of some of the factual inaccuracies found in Jacquard’s Web. Although the book is very readable, some technical accuracy was sacrificed for the sake of the narrative of the book. One example of a factual inaccuracy found on the book was that it suggested that the ENIAC was programmed using punched cards, when in reality the machine was programmed using patch cables.

Discussion turned to the reading “The Past and Future History of the Internet,” by Barry M. Leiner et al., and to the early formation of the internet. One of the earliest forms of the internet began with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the creation of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). The first successful communication over ARPANET was sent on October 29, 1969, between UCLA and Stanford.

Log showing first communication over ARPANET

The question of who, exactly, invented the internet has an ambiguous answer. Because the creation of the internet was such a collaborative, community effort, the best answer is probably that not one single person was solely responsible.

Of important note was the use of packet switching, rather than circuit switching, in ARPANET. In circuit switched networks, a direct, physical connection has to be made between the two parties communicating. To make different connections, the actual infrastructure of the network has to be changed (example: telephone operators switching cable connections). In a packet switched network, on the other hand, lines in the network are shared (multiplexing) and traffic is managed by routers. In this system, the physical infrastructure of the network doesn’t have to be changed to accommodate different connections, and ideal routes through the network can be determined dynamically. This kind of network is what makes the internet as we know it possible.

The next topic of discussion was competition between humans and computers, and, more specifically, the supercomputers Deep Blue and Watson. Deep Blue is the name of a chess-playing computer that was created by IBM for the sole purpose playing chess. Deep Blue calculated its moves using brute force analysis – meaning that millions of possible moves would be considered every turn to find the most advantageous one. This kind of processing heavy analysis was possible because of Deep Blue’s advanced processing capabilities and its specialized hardware. At its time, Deep Blue was the biggest and most powerful supercomputer in the world – it could calculate around 200 million moves per second. Renowned chess player Garry Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue in 1997.

Video: Deep Blue beat G. Kasparov in 1997

The other supercomputer we discussed was Watson, also designed by IBM. Watson was created to be a contestant on the game show Jeopardy. Because being successful on Jeopardy requires speedy interpretation of puns and other lingual tricks, this is a daunting task for a computer; it requires complex language analysis. But, with the ability to evaluate around 200 million pages of content per question and almost 3000 processor cores, Watson was able to defeat Jeopardy star Ken Jennings in a special match (video below). A simplified explanation of Watson’s method: it selects key words from clues, runs them through its 15 terabyte knowledge stores, and then calculates the probability of the answer it has found being correct. If this probability meets a certain threshold, then Watson buzzes in.

Video: Jeopardy! IBM Watson Day 3

Although Watson’s algorithms and processing speed allow it to determine the correct answer a lot of the time, its occasional erratic behavior betrays its non-human nature. For example: choosing a person’s name as an answer when it’s apparent that the clue is suggesting a book, or the oddly specific bet amounts chosen through statistical analysis. This, however, begs the question – is “human-like” behavior the ideal for artificial intelligence, or simply a bar to be exceeded?