Random (but not really)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Punch Cards and Wire Spools

I saw the following picture today, which brought back a book that I bitched about for YEARS because it was so terrible.

4.5 megabytes of data in 1955 in the form of 62,500 punched cards

In case it’s blurred, here’s the text: 4.5 megabytes of data in 1955 in the form of 62,500 punched cards

4.5 megabytes

Let’s jump aead 60 years, and take a look at what could be considered a modern mechanical or automoton: the roomba. A 2016 teardown of a Roomba found 128 megabytes of memory.

That’s 128 MB for a vacuum that has to have a clear floor to work.

Searching for the one book that pissed me off, I found a second that I’d completely repressed, so I get to rant about TWO terrible books and not just one! Hounds of Autumn (2013) by Heather Blackwood and The Affinity Bridge (2009) by George Mann.

In Hounds of Autumn the main character has created a mechanical cat that uses copper spools for memory.

And when I say a mechanical cat, I mean a creature the size of a cat that moves and acts like a cat, including jumping on furniture and chasing feathers.

She set Giles on the floor, and watched as he moved around their table, looked out the window, and examined their feet and legs before settling by Chloe’s chair. The little cat could make decisions, albeit simple ones.

And learn. And move independently. With wire spools for memory.

And there was also this:

Included among the things it kept were data spools. See, when I took apart the hound earlier this evening, I discovered that it stored data on replaceable spools. Now, even an advanced mechanical like Giles only has a certain number of spools, and I would have to put them in and take them out. But Camille designed the hound so it could replace its own spools. The cloth cover on its abdomen had a simple bone button and the panel underneath had a simple hook closure. The hound could take its memory spools in and out itself. And it did.

Have you ever taken apart a desktop computer? How about a laptop? Tried to replace something as simple as a hard drive or add memory? You generally need specialized tools, small fingers, the device needs to be completely powered off, and yet a good percentage of the time something will go wrong and the stupid device won’t boot back up again so you have to tear everything back apart, put it back together, and hope you just mis-seated the thing, instead of getting a bad part you’ll have to send back.

But sure. A mechanical DOG can undo a mostly invisible button and with its paws and then change (and one would assume) re-thread a wire spool.

And we’re not even talking about the power needed to run such a creature. Just the amount of memory needed for independent moving and learning.

The Affinity Bridge was even worse.

This book has automatons. “Physically, they can function only if their program is loaded correctly. They operate on a series of punch cards.”

OK. Fine.

Then we get a description of them moving.

The automaton set to work immediately, crossing the room with a fluid gait, avoiding a pile of machine parts on the floor and approaching the table with the utmost precision.

“(I)f the device were commanded to walk across this workshop, it would automatically find a route around the workbench there, without having to walk into it or attempting to climb over it. This is achieved through a series of logical questions that the unit’s brain is designed to follow. What will happen if the unit walks into the workbench? How will walking into the workbench prevent it from achieving its goal? What is the quickest alternative route to its destination? Switches trigger inside the brain to enable the automaton to settle on the most effective solution to each question, thus deciding its route around the workbench. In this instance, the unit would obviously decide to alter its course, rather than face potential damage by walking into an immovable object.”

Look back at the first picture. The pile of punch cards. 4.5 megabytes.

Now consider a roomba, a vacuum which has 128 MB of silicone memory and isn’t even smart enough not to spread dog shit all over your house if it accidentally runs it over.

But you want me to believe you can have a punch card or wire spool automaton capable of independent movement and thought?

That, folks, is all you have to do to get me to hate read a book.

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