The mysterious world of computing

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As you likely know, each issue has its own theme. This issue is on computing—a topic so utterly central to what we cover it seemed important to tackle it head on. 

When I was young, personal computers were something entirely new. They were vaguely mysterious—you had to know the language—and utterly fascinating. I spent countless hours tinkering on the one in my mother’s home office, writing simple programs, mapping out dungeons in Zork, and trying to understand the universe inside that box. 

Today computers are, obviously, everywhere—in every pocket and automobile, even on the walls of our homes. And although computers, and computing, have become far more ubiquitous and accessible, their roles are often even more mysterious now than they were when I was a child in the 1980s. Virtually all aspects of modern life are now modulated by systems beyond our control. This is not merely because the network or the service or the algorithm is maintained by some unseen entity. As Will Douglas Heaven notes, the very nature of how computing works has changed with the rise of artificial intelligence. We want to help demystify things a bit.

This issue explores how we arrived where we are, and where we are going next. Margaret O’Mara’s sweeping introductory essay grounds the trajectory of computing in its greater historical context. Siobhan Roberts’s exploration of the beguiling P vs. NP question traces the long road Sisyphean researchers have traveled in trying to find a definitive answer. Chris Turner’s review of A Biography of the Pixel starts by exploring the complex history of “Digital Light” and builds to an unexpected, utterly delightful treatise on the triumph of Steamed Hams. (You’re just going to have to read it.) 

But history is meant to serve the present. Morgan Ames delves into the hype around One Laptop per Child to help us find a better way toward ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society receive true equity of access. Fay Cobb Payton, Lynette Yarger, and Victor Mbarika explain how we can think about building true pathways into the industry for underrepresented groups. Lakshmi Chandrasekaran’s examination of the triumph of silicon over other seemingly fallow technologies (remember spintronics?) shows how those alternatives may ultimately prove their worth. Meanwhile, Clive Thompson brings us the story of ASML, the Dutch company whose revolutionary process is keeping Moore’s Law alive, at least for now.