What ARE Universal Computers?


Video Script

So what really is a universal computer? We’ve thrown that term around a little bit. We’ve also talked about what it means to be a truly general purpose computer or reprogrammable computer compared to a fixed program computer like what the original Difference Engine was. So, this is what made the ENIAC so unique as well as the mark one, although to a lesser extent. is the fact that they are considered the world’s first true universal computers. So what do you think it means to be called a universal computer? Well, a universal computer can simulate any real world computer given infinite time and infinite memory. So if you imagine taking your cell phone or even something as small as like the little Raspberry Pi or a smartwatch. And if it was truly a universal computer, if you gave it enough time and enough memory, it could pretty much do anything any other computer could do. So compare that to some supercomputer right like Beocat that we have in the computer science department here at K-State. Right, a universal computer can do anything that Beocat can do, given enough time and give it given enough space.

So this brings us to Alan Turing. Now, Alan Turing was one of the first people to come up with this idea of a truly universal computer. Now, in 1936, he proposed this idea of an imaginary computer, and this imaginary computer was so simple, it was like it couldn’t do anything right. And actually Alan Turing was mocked quite extensive. Simply for coming up with this idea because people thought it was just crazy that it wouldn’t work. But now we know this imaginary computer to be known as the Turing machine. But in reality, this Turing machine, this simple machine that he kind of came up with, was able to do and calculate any value that could be done by any other computer, even though it was crazy simple. So let’s take a look at an example of what a Turing machine might look like right because it was an imaginary computer an imaginary machine.

So a Turing machine itself consisted of a an infinitely long tape, and this tape is divided. It has individual squares on it, just kind of like a roll of film wood and a classic non digital camera anyways, but each individual square you could would be either a one or a zero or it could be blank if it hadn’t had any data written to it yet. Now the machine actually works by moving back and forth along the tape and reading and writing ones and zeros depending on the value that actually reads out from the tape. But how does it actually know where to go? Well, if you can see here in the picture, there’s this little controller in the system as well.

Now this controller would have had a program pre loaded onto it. And so we could write this program using these commands here and it’s relatively simple, right? We have eight different commands right, move left, and move right, right one, right, zero, read. So the read is if this square is zero, or if this square is one, go to Step x in the program. And then we also have just a straight, go to Step whatever, and stop. So the program itself right could only consist of these eight steps and here in another video, we’ll take a look at an example of these eight steps in action. But it’s really important to emphasize how cool this actually is right? The simplicity of these eight basic steps represent a universal computer. And this universal computer right is just a can accomplish just as much as something a supercomputer could do like Beocat. So, given enough time, and memory, a Turring machine with these eight basic steps, and only reading and writing ones and zeros could accomplish any problem.