At the break of millenia, many of us were awed by the rate of change of the world around us. Most of it were, as we were told, due to a single invention - computer. However, those who were quick to recognize their potential didn’t seem to be put off guard by it. They all but hesitate to come up with new applications for this magnificent result of human intellect. The rest are left to be amazed by the precision of the predictions made about what kind of changes we were to witness due to this digital revolution. So were these predictions just lucky guesses or was the computer always destined to success?
We can approach finding the roots of computers’ potential through the lens of understanding the development of human’s comprehension of their environment. How did we get from hunting and gathering to computers?
People started to learn about things they see around them ever so more deeply and precisely. When answering questions like: “How many spears do we have?” they would no longer be satisfied with responses such as “Grr… few”. Neither would a hand gesture suffice. We came to a need to represent quantities somewhat more accurately. Simultaneously, in a way that could express an amount of anything else, not just spears. Some things even, there is more of than just the number of fingers we have.
So over the years, people have developed of numbers. to any observed and, in doing so, represent its magnitude ( it).
At first, it was enough for us to quantify physical objects, which we could have seen in front of us. The number of fingers, goats in a herd, people in the tribe. For such quantities, it is obvious what is the “one” - a One finger, one goat, one person…
Later though, we found numbers helpful when describing less apparent qualities of things. For example, the height of a person, the weight of a gemstone, or the water volume in a bucket. Even the periods which have passed since a specific moment in the past have become a matter of quantifying. We started to measure time. So what are the units in these cases? How much is “one height of a person”? That became the matter of a consensus between people in any given society. They needed to agree what are the units of height, weight, volume, etc…
Where is the limit of what can be described by numbers then? Are there particular objects, qualities, attributes, or anything such that it’s impossible to quantify it? A romantic soul could probably think of some examples from physical or even metaphysical worlds that are impossible to grasp by numbers. How would you measure love or pleasure? However, like in the cases of height or weight, if we agree with some people to measure even abstract concepts in a certain way, we can effectively slap a number on anything.
Such arbitrary assignment of numeric values to some doesn’t need to describe it completely, nor perfectly. It just needs to be useful for the purpose you’re using it for.
Without getting any further into the mathematics behind it, we’ll mention one thing. When we try to describe something mathematically, we do not always end up having a single number for it. Sometimes we want to explore how some attributes affect each other - what is the relationship between them. This is the subject for mathematical concepts you may know as relations and functions. We’ll leave that for some other time, though.
We use numbers, and more generally mathematics, to any phenomena we want to study. This is an essential thing to realize when we want to understand the reasons behind computers’ success and potential.
That’s because the idea of computers has always been for them to be the machines that can do calculations instead of people having to do it with pen and paper. Similar to what any other machines have done to different industries, so people make their lives easier. As we can see today, that became a reality.