Mountain View, US | Geek history
From Napier’s Bones and the Antikythera mechanism to IBM Watson and Google Street View, this museum has it all
It was a no-contest. The score read $77,147 to $21,600.
I was at the set that had been used on the popular American quiz show Jeopardy! where Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing system built to answer trivia questions posed in natural language, had beaten two human competitors in 2011. The set is now housed at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, US, where I was posing for a photograph with Watson as if I had been pitted against it on the show. At the press of a button, visitors get one of the scores from the last of three episodes in which the computer defeated two former Jeopardy! champions.
I hadn’t sought out Watson at the Computer History Museum just because I was an avid quizzer and a former winner of the quiz show Mastermind India. Until a few weeks earlier, I had worked at IBM on a project that involved using the technology that Watson was built on. As I stood on the set, I was conscious of several threads of my life intersecting: my academic and professional background in computer science, my interest in quizzing, and my weakness for history.
Going weak in the knees at the sight of a museum isn’t an emotion that many will confess to feeling, but I instantly felt a tug, for I had previously never heard of a museum dedicated to the field that I had spent many years of my life studying and working in.
Four of us (my wife, two friends who worked at Google, and I—all computer engineers) drove to the museum on a Sunday afternoon. The museum is a two-storey building with exhibits on the ground floor. The admission packages are called “General Admission”, “Super Geek” and “Total Geek”. Wanting to feel like one, I opted for “Super Geek” ($28, or around Rs.1,600), which entitled me to a “Geek” badge, a T-shirt, and a guidebook to “Revolution”, the museum’s biggest exhibit.
“Revolution”, a permanent exhibit since 2011, was about “The First 2000 Years of Computing”. It was divided into 20 physical sections, broadly arranged by chronological themes, beginning with “Calculators” and ending with the “Web”. All the sections were packed wall-to-wall with placards containing text and visuals, and artefacts inside slanted glass counters that were lit by overhead spotlights.
At the Jacquard loom (a weaving machine invented in 1801), it was easy to see how computing had started affecting commerce. The loom used punched cards and hooks, and had made it possible to encode and easily change complex patterns in fabrics, turning weaving from a slow, manual process to a highly customizable and quick activity. I was amazed at the ingenuity that went into using holes in a piece of paper to change an entire industry.
In this timeline of the two-millennia-long exhibit, we had raced through the first 1,900 years in the first three sections. With the section titled “Birth Of The Computer”, the march of “Revolution” had brought us to the 20th century. Soon, World War II and the Enigma machine were upon us.
The story of how this “unbreakable” cipher device used by the Germans was secretly cracked by a team that included the computer scientist Alan Turing is a landmark in cryptography. This black and brown wooden box had round black buttons on the top and slots on the side. Both sets corresponded to letters inscribed on or next to them, allowing for the mapping from an input alphabet to an output alphabet. With sundry dials, screws and wires, the effect was that of a sinister version of a typewriter.
I had been there for an hour and it was clear that there was so much to see. If I wanted to watch a video of computer scientist Donald Knuth talking about the poetry of programming, then I also wanted to find out about the large,1950s-style computers that made the room look like the bridge of Starship Enterprise from the Star Trek series.
At 4.45pm, a young staffer came calling: “Just to remind all of you, we’re closing in 15 minutes.” Caught off-guard, and kicking myself for not being aware of the museum’s closing time, I hurriedly took my final glances around. Chief among my regrets were missing the “Google Street View” exhibit and the Difference Engine model.
As we walked out, I found myself musing over the fact that if we, as creators and consumers of technology, have got so far, it’s because we’ve been able to stand (and dance) on the shoulders of giants of the computing world from ages past. One day, the Singularity (a hypothetical event when artificial intelligence will become “smarter” than humans) will arrive and the museum will be flooded by sentient programs browsing the origins of their ancestors. What will they make of it all?
Perhaps Watson already knows.
J. Ramanand is a former computer science researcher based in Pune. He dreams of geyser-gazing in Iceland.
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