Computing's Split Personality


What has two personalities and sits on your desk? A computer. To do in your spare time: search for the word "automata" in an image-based search. You'll probably see some crafty wooden machines and then a few odd looking diagrams with circles and letters. This is the split-personality surfacing. Prior to 1950 the word automaton, and the word computer, either meant a human being (who computed) or an analog machine. This is not strictly true because, for example, Babbage's 19th century engine designs were digital; however, up to World War II, analog computing was in wide use making digital computers relative newcomers. In the above image, on the left we have a deterministic finite state machine represented as a diagram. On the right, one of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre's inventions (Pirate Panic). Pirate Panic is driven by an analog computer, and like most analog computers, it solves a formula resulting in a continuum of states. Thankfully, the formula is most entertainingly realized with a Pirate and an Octopus. So, will the real automaton come forward? Both are valid automata and the divergence of types could be covered adequately only in a book. The short story is that the mathematical theory of automata proceeded in one direction, and the analog variety lives on in disciplines that rely on "signals and systems" which interestingly enough, means some computer music interfaces and languages in addition to the Pirate.