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It's Time To Build the Analytical Engine 127

macslocum writes "John Graham-Cumming is launching a project to finish Charles Babbage's dream and build an Analytical Engine for public display. The goal: inspire future generations of scientists to work on their own 100-year leaps."
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It's Time To Build the Analytical Engine

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  • Question: If we had such a computer, or artificial intelligence. Would we be aware of it’s existence? I am leading to the idea that our military intelligence would likely have AI and suppress any knowledge of it until it is leaked or we are ready. I like to think that we have the tech now for cars to drive themselves but our society isn’t ready for a leap, so we are getting slow introductions to it – i.e. Microsoft Sync that is only available to those who want to buy a new Ford
    • Excuse me, I was thinking in relation sense, if we had a sudden leap in computer technology. I can't edit my previous comment :(
    • Even if the AI would be fully demonstrated to the public, it will be a long time before we will recognize that the computers we have are actually artificially intelligent. It's not hard to see why: think back to the 18th century with its thoughts on black people and today's discussion around what constitutes artificial intelligence. My AI prof summed it up nicely (in the last century, yikes): if it works, it's an engineering problem. If it doesn't work, it's an AI problem.

      • by bug1 ( 96678 )

        Imagine trying to explain to someone from the 18th century that we have a bodyless Intelligence lurking in the cloud, they would think we where talking about God.

      • by gmhowell ( 26755 )

        I watch a lot of cable news, and have trouble recognizing any natural intelligence.

    • isn’t ready for a leap.... i.e. Microsoft Sync

      Don't you mean, stumble?

      Haven't you heard the Microsoft Car jokes []?

    • Me too!

      I also like to think that they are the ones who actually know the secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices involved in the KFC chicken, but a majority of the people out there couldn't handle it if they knew it.

    • Yeah, we have the tech now for cars to drive themselves. I used to work for a robotics company and we made a number of vehicles that could drive themselves safely (for the most part, anyway).

      Anyway, the main thing keeping autonomous cars off the roads today is not some secret government conspiracy, but cost. We built a car for the Darpa Urban Challenge which was capable of driving safely in normal traffic conditions at speeds up to 40mph (and several of our engineers felt confident that it could have han
      • Yeah, we have the tech now for cars to drive themselves. I used to work for a robotics company and we made a number of vehicles that could drive themselves safely (for the most part, anyway).

        How well did your system handle pedestrian detection? Because, I recently (less than 2 years) attended a talk by someone from the Stanford autonomous cars lab. I was just about to get my license, so I asked if the system could pass the driving test. The answer was that it could not, because pedestrians would not be detected by the system. And that "for the most part, anyway" is trouble too.

        • 8^) For obvious reasons, we couldn't do very extensive testing with pedestrian detection. Suffice it to say that HR felt compelled to convene a meeting with the engineers regarding the proper usage of interns...

          From what *ahem* testing we were able to perform, out system detected pedestrians just fine. We were using a laser-based detector from whose data we used to create a 3d mesh of the world in real time. The mesh was then compared with camera images to determine the location of obstacles and roads. If
      • by tibit ( 1762298 )

        I'm sure that if someone was going to order 10k of those sensors, they could get them made for $5k.

        • Maybe, but I doubt it. Sensors are precision instruments and each one has to be calibrated and tested to within an inch of it's life. That process only becomes "cheap" when you can afford to massively parallelize it. If you sell ten of these sensors a year and each one takes a week to be tested/calibrated properly by a trained engineer, they certainly cost a pretty penny. But you can't just pump out 10K and expect the engineer's time to suddenly get cheaper.
          • by tibit ( 1762298 )

            In mass production, all of the testing is going to be 100% automated. All the cost will be in developing a test/calibration jig. The testing/calibration will probably take a couple minutes, and be done wholly by an automated system. The engineering will be NRE cost to develop the jig, to run it you shouldn't need anything more than an industrial technician.

      • by mark-t ( 151149 )
        I would think that the main thing keeping them off the road is liability issues, especially if there was a loss of human life, where an accident was caused either by software malfunction, or simple inability for the computer to anticipate certain drivers who do something that might not necessarily be very kosher or even legal, where an experienced driver learns how to "read" other drivers around them based on observations and naturally gives the most clearance to the ones that could be suspicious.
        • That's certainly a concern, but the GP was positing a conspiracy to protect the people from the dangers of tech we aren't "ready" for. I agree that liability is a problem, but it's not an insurmountable one. Autonomous vehicles *are* coming. They won't be approved for public roads until the government is convinced of their (relative) safety, but they are coming.

          No one is avoiding this research because of liability concerns.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by melchoir55 ( 218842 )

      There is an entire scientific discipline (cognitive science) devoted to the creation of an AI. It is nowhere near succeeding. Unless the US military has managed to perform its own research (and I mean including basics like underlying philosophy which isn't even settled) then it is not possible for the US military to be harboring an AI. I know this seems possible from the outside because they get so much money... but money can't really make a few closed door researchers produce something more significant tha

    • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

      by KliX ( 164895 )

      This may well be the most retarded slashdot comment I've read. Ever.

    • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 )
      The DARPA Grand challenge has been won (easily and quickly, I admit) only a few years ago. Give people some time to adapt it into new cars. It take around 5 years from a design concept to a production car.
    • Same with Aliens from outer space/other dimensions!
  • Is it the Internet?

    What today stands out as something that is so immediately useful and complex and ahead of its time that we as humans are lucky to have been around at the very start of?

    Several others: Transistors, Fire, Radio, Electricity, Walkman

    • Maybe the Space shuttle, or the Apollo rockets.

      We've shown that we can do it, but we just aren't pressing ahead (or lack the related technologies to do so).

      • by maxume ( 22995 )

        What is it you think that angry candles enable us to do?

        • Space travel in general. I think that if we really pushed hard, we could be starting to look at manned ships at least to the asteroid belt, but we don't seem to have the drive/interest in doing so.

          • The problem is, there's no practical reason for space travel. Yeah, its "cool" but it doesn't really accomplish much. Look at Apollo, yeah, it was pretty damn cool that we had an actual human walking on the fucking moon! But what did that really gain us other than a point for the US against the USSR? There really wasn't much -science- done or research.

            Until either there is an imminent need to move to a different planet (nuclear war, etc) or an interesting thing that we can't just send a rover out to inv
    • by proc_tarry ( 704097 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @03:30PM (#33798360)
      I would put the underwire bra on that list.
    • Neither is at all practical at the moment, but there's no reason they shouldn't work in theory, just like the analytical engine was in Babbage's day. And, like the engine, in 150 years, we'll be talking about how the idea changed everything.

      • Neither is at all practical at the moment, but there's no reason they shouldn't work in theory, just like the analytical engine was in Babbage's day. And, like the engine, in 150 years, we'll be talking about how the idea changed everything.

        fwiw, I *hope* that in 150 years I'll be able to talk :)

    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      Several others: Transistors, Fire, Radio, Electricity, Walkman

      FPGA field programmable gate arrays

      How about most of the biological sciences / genetics?


    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      What today stands out as something that is so immediately useful and complex and ahead of its time that we as humans are lucky to have been around at the very start of?

      Um, all technology starting with the wheel? If you mean "living humans", my grandmother's only been dead for 7 years, but she was born nine months before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and watched the moon landing (I was a teenager then, I watched it too -- EVERYBODY watched that).

      But sorry, I don't think much of your list. Fire and e

      • Fire and electricity were discovered, not invented..... and BEER.

        "BEER", as we know it today, was certainly "invented" - but fermented sugars producing alcohol and being consumed was definitely a discovery

      • by Thing 1 ( 178996 )

        Other responder showed beer is a discovery; I would argue that most of your list is also discoveries. Agriculture is simply "keeping one's environment clean" which is what an immune system does; telephony is communication, which is what nerves do; radio signals have been sent for billions of years by quasars; flight (aircraft) is a discovery, not an invention -- and with that last, perhaps I'm blurring the line; spacecraft also show that we discovered we cannot breathe up there and did something about it -

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          In fact, I wonder exactly how to differentiate "discovery" from "invention".

          Yes, that's obvious from your first paragraph. The AC that responed to your post got it right; see what he said about beer. As I already said, wine was a discovery, beer was an invention (and AC explained it well).

          Agriculture is far more than simply "keeping one's environment clean"; it's tilling soil, saving seeds, actively planting, and it's nothing whatever like an animal's immune system. Telephones are nothing like nerves and w

    • By the equivalent of the "Analytical Engine" I assume you mean a project of such grand vision that it can never be completed with available resources. People try every century or so to resurrect the project, until they too run out of resources.

      The Analytical Engine seems to meet that test. Two other projects also come immediately to mind:
      • The Cyc [] project started by Doug Lenat in 1984. It tests the hypothesis that intelligence arises with sufficient knowledge of the world by parsing information taken
      • by Ksevio ( 865461 )

        I saw that clock prototype the other day, it was kind of a disappointment that a clock designed to keep time for 10,000 years wasn't even running.

        The difference engine on the other hand was quite impressive to watch in action, I hope that someone can create a working Analytic engine for display as well.

    • Electric vehicle's [] analytical [] engines [].
  • Unfortunately, one of the patent warehouse companies now holds the patent to the machine, and is asking $37B for the rights....

  • What sort of framerate can it run Crysis at?

    • What sort of framerate can it run Crysis at?

      0 FPS, only because it would be annoyed at how unoptimized the code is. It would be so annoyed that it would rewrite the source into a preferred code, maybe CryEngine 4 and bypassing the new Crysis coming out

      • |What sort of framerate can it run Crysis at?

        60 fps if you're willing to put up with a 1x1 pixel display...

  • Is it just me? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Colourspace ( 563895 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @03:19PM (#33798202)
    Reading TFA sent a very real chill down my spine. Who knows what we are overlooking everyday with all the science and engineering going on in the world? The shocking thing about this whole story is that in retrospect, his idea seems obvious and is scientifically sound, but was ignored. The real point I'm trying to make is how much CAD software and man hours will it take to simulate this - but he did it all without even a pocket calculator.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      It's just you. Programmable machinery has been around a long time.

      Babbage's step to develop a generic, programmable machine was innovative, but not out of the blue.

      It's complex and pretty amazing (and loud), and we shouldn't take anything away from the achievement of the Analytical Machine, but it was still an evolution atop existing designs.

      • Whose designs did he build on?
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          All programmable machinery designs. Pascal had a mechanical tabulator, for example.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Combatso ( 1793216 )
          why, Jacquard's loom ofcourse
        • Re:Is it just me? (Score:5, Informative)

          by darkstar949 ( 697933 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @03:34PM (#33798416)
          Jacquard looms [] had been around for awhile and used punch cards to control how the machine operated. Likewise, changing the punch cards would allow for a different pattern to be made. However, these were by no means general purpose computers and were also not capable of preforming calculations.
        • Re:Is it just me? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @03:40PM (#33798502)

          Whose designs did he build on?

          No ones. There will be ten posts listing jacquard looms, none of which do arithmetic or control flow beyond making a big ole loop.

          There will be a couple posts about theoretical ideas that were eventually implemented in IBMs unit record punch card data processing gear. It only took half a century to implement his ideas in that regard.

          • Re:Is it just me? (Score:4, Insightful)

            by vadim_t ( 324782 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @06:34PM (#33800856) Homepage

            Why doesn't that qualify as "building on"?

            Just that the looms didn't do any math doesn't mean they weren't a a programmable device. Surely realizing that a programmable mechanical machine can be built is one of the steps on the way of figuring out how to make a machine that can solve arbitrary problems.

            And can it be a complete coincidence that Babbage decided to use the same storage medium?

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by vlm ( 69642 )

              Just that the looms didn't do any math doesn't mean they weren't a a programmable device. Surely realizing that a programmable mechanical machine can be built is one of the steps on the way of figuring out how to make a machine that can solve arbitrary problems.

              The looms are about as programmable as a hydraulic tracing lathe... My mother was interested in looms although not enough to buy something like a full jacquard-style loom, so my info is based on limited personal experience and lots of second hand discussion. People with no experience with those looms, sometimes overestimate the looms ability... Trust me its not like they were writing C# code on those panels, or they ran them thru a compiler or something... Even modern machine tool G-code is staggeringly mo

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by hcdejong ( 561314 )

        By that argument, the Colossus and contemporaries were just a logical evolution of the telephone exchange.

        I disagree. Babbage's ideas were out of the blue. So much so that in the 100 years following, no one working on the numerous calculator (and related) projects had the same idea. Babbage was working on a Turing-complete machine a century before Turing put that concept to paper.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MozeeToby ( 1163751 )

      One thing to keep in mind, it's entirely possible that his detractors were right. I wouldn't be surprised if the amount of effort that would have gone into designing, building, operating, and maintaining an analytical engine would have been higher than hiring humans to do the work in the first place. One thing with being 100 years ahead of your time is that... well, your idea is 100 years ahead of everything else; a surprising number of inventions would be totally worthless if taken 100 years out of conte

      • A good point, as was BadAnalogyGuy's. I suppose the shiver comes from the possibility of how very different the last century could have been were his plans realised at the time. Of course, there are multiple universes to consider too.
      • There's a mistake here.

        He was only "100 years ahead of his time" because, er, well, 100 years passed. But he need not have been. Scientists say that sometimes "the mood of an age" is right for certain things to appear. So if some soft factors had gone the other way, he'd have only been 30 years ahead of his time.

        • You mean sort of like how the facebook wouldn't exist if we had proper privacy regulations in place when it was being created? Now that's a scary thought.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      but he did it all without even a pocket calculator

      The pocket calculator [] was invented 350 years ago. The engineers at NASA that sent men to the moon used the same kind of pocket calculators available to Babbage; the same pocket calculator I used to cheat in math class with in Jr. high.

      • You forgot about the abacus [] which, in some forms, is over 4000 years old.

      • My sister tells of passing a spool of thread around the room. If only they had invented the tin can then.

      • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

        Flamebait? Well, at least whatever idiot that modded that, downmodded me instead of modding someone he could hurt.

        I miss the old metamoderation system; mods who modded stupid like that didn't used to get any more mod points.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      And it lends further credence to the fact that in order to have your genius recognized and have your ideas propagate, you need to know how to interact with people. Tesla is another example. Brilliance means nothing if no one understands you and no one wants to understand you.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by hedwards ( 940851 )
        That's been pretty well established. Being brilliant is one thing, but it's extremely rare for an individual to get anything meaningful accomplished alone. At a bare minimum the process of procuring the resources to put it into place is nigh impossible. Let alone cases where you need others to help test the hypothesis.
    • The shocking thing about this whole story is that in retrospect, his idea seems obvious and is scientifically sound, but was ignored.

      It is 1837.

      Precision manufacturing is in its infancy, Complex mechanisms are difficult to build and maintain.

      The only immeadiate need for a "computer" is in the construction of more accurate mathematical tables.

      But the need for greater precision there is similiarly limited by your abilty to make any practical use of it.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      "It's just you"</polite_sarcasm>

      The 'little guy inventor' ignored by the establishment and 'ahead of his time' is perhaps the strongest cliche in popular-science writing.

      Particularly in Popular Science. Here -- enjoy the archives. [] I grew up with a molding pile of these extending back to the 30s. I doubt you can find any issue without this trope, and likely more than 3 times in each.

      While I can understand where it comes from and why it's popular (every engineer has a PHB), the trouble is it encourages

    • by Ga_101 ( 755815 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @05:41PM (#33800320)
      There is a great difference between somebody who had a great idea, but was overlooked and somebody who blew it.

      Babbage was the latter.

      When he showed people a small prototype of his difference engine, they knew exactly what kind of potential it had. The TFA even said that the government backed him. I'll stop the press and let that sink in. The British government knew at the time just what a game changer this could have been. What TFA article doesn't say is the extent to which they backed him. In the prices of the day, they invested the equivalent of a fully kitted out and manned battleship in the project. A battleship. What happened?

      Babbage squandered the money, fell out with every metal-smith in the country capable of building the difference engine and committed the ultimate crime of changing his mind and plans time and time and time again. Sure, he had a lot of plans for the Analytical engine, but he couldn't stay focused/act civilly enough to build the machine everybody wanted to begin with. After such an investment and nothing to show for it, nobody would give him the time of day, let alone commission him to build an even more complex machine with an unfinished design.

      It could be said, rather than a man who had a great idea that wasn't realised. Babbage had a great idea that he killed so badly via his own incompetence, nobody touched it for another 100 years.
    • The shocking thing about this whole story is that in retrospect, his idea seems obvious and is scientifically sound, but was ignored.

      Well, no, not really. He was funded until the people funding him realized he wasn't actually producing anything but vaporware - then he was ignored. His reputation has been enhanced posthumously because we eventually did build computers (making his seem 'obvious and scientifically sound' by comparison) even though he never actually built anything.

      The real point I'm t

    • by elynnia ( 815633 )

      As a starry-eyed 21-year-old I just have to say...

      This is bloody brilliant, and looking at it makes me amazed that people once actually invented and engineered complex devices by hand, then disappointed in the realisation that today everyone takes the easy way out with solenoids, microcontrollers and bloated code that doesn't let you completely understand what's going on in there.

      As much as I'd like to get into mechanical computing/engineering as a hobby, it seems to be mainly dead outside of a few eccentri

  • Much more... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @03:22PM (#33798248) Homepage

    This is much more than just building it for public display. The idea is to demonstrate that it was, indeed, a fully functional device, and to give credit where credit is due.

    • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

      by CAIMLAS ( 41445 )

      How did this idiot get modded insightful? Just because he posted early?

      More like nobody else gives a damn about this kinda thing.

  • Doron Swade who wrote "The Difference Engine" (the non-fiction book, not the steampunk fiction by Gibson and Sterling) can tell you this:
    It's not possible to create The Analytical Engine. Why? Because Babbage never stopped creating the designs. There is no one clean, complete set of designs for the Analytical Engine.

    If someone were to build it, they would first have to pick and choose from among Babbage's numerous sketches, then fill in any of the missing bits. It's not a true, 100% authentic, Babbage design, unlike the simpler Difference Engine, which had a clean set of engineering drawings for its creation.

  • There's an Analytical Engine emulator [] available. It's a Java applet.

    There's no fundamental obstacle to making a working replica, other than money.

  • Hmm... modern examples of overlooked technologies? Well, an emerging example might be the Memristor []. Proposed in 1971, it wasn't until very recently that a practical example was constructed; it remains to be seen if they will remain niche curiosities, or become a common part of common electronic designs.

  • oblig (Score:2, Funny)

    Imagine a Beowulf cluster of them
  • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Tuesday October 05, 2010 @04:37PM (#33799348)

    What I sometimes wonder in hindsight, is could Babbage's machines have been built with the technologies of the time using different techniques that would have been more easy to achieve. He was always pushing the envelope of machining technology with axles and gears, partly in an effort to gain speed. (For example, in the difference engine the gear system had a very complex look-ahead carry feature to make it much faster.) The machines required very tight tolerances and a good deal of force to operate.

    Gears work mostly on compressive forces. If instead he had built a machine based mostly on tension, like pulling strings wrapped around wheels and cogs, would the machines have been more practical to build? The machines might have been one or two orders of magnitude slower. However, the problems he was after, like computing logarithm tables, are highly parallelizable. Instead of trying to create one super machine (and never succeeding), would he have been better off with making a bunch of much slower, easier to build machines?

    • can't envision what you are describing, please explain a simple operation (adding one and one) with your string tension machine?

      • An example would be to implement a binary full adder. (Babbage used straight decimal operations on his gears, but I remember seeing somewhere that he was at least aware of binary logic.)

        I haven't really put that much thought into it, but I could imagine having 2 master actuators that act like "clocks" over the whole machine. A full adder might have three plates or levers shaped so that each input can pull it into a certain position. The first master clock would actuate a logic operation, shifting two output

    • His machines could have been built in his time with his technologies. The problem was just that doing so would have taken a *lot* of time -- dozens of man-years of work. He was coming up with additions and modifications ten times as fast as the manufacturing capability of the time could produce.

      The bearings of the time were primitive: a lot of machinery was still using greased leather in a compressable joint, and only the nicest equipment used plain bronze sleeve bearings. The gears were not precisely

  • ... haven't the Science museum in London already done this?
  • It isn't the analytical engine, but it works ... today ... and can be seen at the Computer History Museum in the SF Bay Area. []
  • And the monkey, of course. Polite. Tips his little red hat. Capuchin. Ah, yes... Nostalgia for those bygone ne'er-do-wells of the Brddish Upper Crusk, bleedin' oddities that they were, and all.