From the Z1 to the Singularity – Zuse's 100th birthday

6/22/2010 – The German engineer and computer pioneer Konrad Zuse was born one hundred years ago today. He is considered the inventor of the world's first programmable computer, and the first high-level programming language. This anniversary leads us to pause and consider how far we have come in a single human lifetime – and where the development of computers is leading. Food for thought.

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From the Z1 to the Singularity – Zuse's 100th birthday

Konrad Zuse (pronounced tsu-ze) was born exactly one hundred years ago – on June 22nd, 1910, in Berlin. He was a German engineer and computer pioneer and arguably the inventor of the world's first functional electronic program-controlled Turing machine, or "computer", as we refer to it today. His Z3 machine, which was fed punched tape programs, was completed in 1941.

Zuse also designed the first high-level programming language, Plankalkül, which was published in 1948. Some years before its formal publication, between 1942 and 1945, the author wrote a chess program for it (however the first technical implementaion of Plankalkül only happened in the 70s). He also founded one of the earliest computer businesses, the Zuse Ingenieurbüro und Apparatebau, which was founded in 1941 and went on to build the Z4, which was leased to ETH Zürich in 1950. There are replicas of the Z3, as well as the Z4, in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

The Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin has displays of twelve of his machines, including a replica of the Z1, some original documents, including the specifications of Plankalkül, and several of Zuse's paintings.

A Zuse painting

In the early 90s Konrad Zuse contacted me (Frederic Friedel) to discuss the progress in computer chess – which we did on a couple of occasions on the phone. One subject of our conversation was predicting when a computer would defeat the the reigning World Chess Champion – in a match over a large number of games (16-20) under regular tournament time controls. In 1991 I had asked a number of experts and received the following predictions:

1992 Monroe Newborn
1993 John McCarthy
1994 Hans Berliner, Marty Hirsch, Feng-hsiung Hsu
1999 Claude Shannon, Frederic Friedel
2000 Robert Hyatt, Jaap van den Herik
2001 John Nunn
2002 Julio Kaplan
2005 Richard Lang
2008 Harry Nelson
2010 Garry Kasparov ("or perhaps never")
2012 Dieter Steinwender
2014 David Levy
2018 Ken Thompson
2020 Tony Marsland
2030 Frans Morsch
2040 Jonathan Schaeffer

I asked Zuse for his prediction and he promised to think about it and give it to me when we met at his home in Hünfeld. Unfortunately on the planned weekend I caught a flu and we decided that the risk of infecting him was too great. The visit was cancelled and I never got to meet the computer pioneer.

Konrad Zuse in 1992

Konrad Zuse died on December 18, 1995, in Hünfeld near Fulda (Germany). His son Klaus-Peter Zuse is a 2223-rated FM who plays in the German Team Championship and was the Champion of the state of Baden in 2005.

A bronze tribute to Konrad Zuse (Bad Hersfeld, Germany)

The history and future of computing

The history of mechanical computing machines goes a long way back. The English mathematician, philosopher and inventor Charles Babbage, born in 1791, was the first to propose the concept of what was essentially a programmable computer. He drew up elaborate and detailed plans for a "Difference Engine", which he was unable to construct. 153 years after it was designed this engine was reconstruced in London, from Babbage's original plans. It was built to tolerances achievable in the 19th century and, as we can show you in the following video, it actually works.

The Babbage Engine in action at the computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA

One of the first programmable electronic computers was built at Los Alamos in the deserts of New Mexico after the Second World War. Its purpose was the development and refinement of atomic weapons. Working out the correct shape of the implosion charges that trigger the chain reaction required a very large number of calculations.

In 1946 the Hungarian/American mathematician John von Neumann was given the task of designing a powerful calculation machine to speed up the task. In 1950 a giant machine called MANIAC I was delivered. It was filled with thousands of vacuum tubes and switches and could execute 10,000 instructions per second. It was also programmable.

Instead of immediately getting to work on the bombs the scientists started experimenting with the machine. And one of the first things they did was to write a chess program. It was for a reduced 6 x 6 board without bishops. In spite of this the program needed twelve minutes to search to a depth of four ply (with the bishops it would have required three hours).

The program played three games in the mid fifties. The first was against itself (White won), the second against a strong player who spotted it a queen. The game lasted ten hours and the master won. Finally it played against a young lady who had learnt the game a week earlier. The program won the game in 23 moves. It was the first time a human had lost to a computer in a game of intellectual skill. Here's the historic game (6 x 6 board, no bishops, no double-step for pawns, no castling):

MANIAC 1 – Human, Los Alamos 1956: 1.d3 b4 2.Nf3 d4 3.b3 e4 4.Ne1 a4 5.bxa4? [5.Nd2 and 6.Nd2-c4+ Nbcxc4 7.b3xc4 with a good game] 5...Nxa4 6.Kd2? Nc3 7.Nxc3 bxc3+ 8.Kd1 f4 9.a3 Rb6 10.a4 Ra6 11.a5 Kd5 12.Qa3 Qb5 13.Qa2+ Ke5 14.Rb1 Rxa5 15.Rxb5 Rxa2 16.Rb1 [to prevent 16...Ra1 mate!] 16...Ra5 17.f3 Ra4 18.fxe4 c4 19.Nf3+ Kd6 20.e5+ Kd5 21.exf6Q Nc5 22.Qf6xd4+ Kc6 23.Nf3-e5 mate.

It is interesting to note that today's smartphones are around 200 million times faster than Konrad Zuse's original computers. And other peripherals have developed at similarly mind-boggling pace. Here's an interesting picture sent to us by Yasser Seirawan, a great aficionado of scientific and technological subjects.

Can you guess what the above picture depicts? Hint: it was taken in 1956...

Well, you are probably not going to guess it, so we will tell you straight out: it's a hard disk drive for the first "super computer", the 305 RAMAC, developed by IBM. It weighed over a ton and stored a whopping five megabytes of data.

Today, 54 years later, we have micro mobile memory cards (SDHC) that weigh just a few grams and hold 16 gigabytes and more. Sixteen GB – that is over three thousand times as much data as the original IBM hard drive. The smallest component in the middle is the one that contains the actual memory. The others are just adaptors.

The SDHC chips are mainly for use in cameras and cell phones. Sixteen GB can also be put to excellent use to store the most important tablebases and use them with Fritz or Rybka. The seek times are considerably less than from a hard disk, which can speed up the search when the program starts to consult the tablebases. Incidentally our experts predict that the first one terabyte memory stick will become available some time during the coming year (2011). It will be fairly expensive, but prices will drop in 2012.

The general development of computers – processing speed, amount of information – is not hitting a plateau. In fact it is accelerating. How this is going to proceed in the near future is described by Ray Kurzweil in the following fascinating lecture:

Kurzweil's vision of the man-machine merger which he calls the Singularity is predicted for the year 2045, around one hundred years after the first computers constructed by Konrad Zuse. Kurzweil defines the Singularity as follows: "Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity – technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light."

We are told that Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have become involved in this project. It is possible, they think, that we will be able to upload the contents of our brains by the year 2030 – and are investing serious funds into the advancement of this enterprise.

And it all started with the machines of Konrad Zuse, just one lifetime ago.

Frederic Friedel

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