Nowadays, just about everyone is trying to build computers that can think and reason like humans. Or so out seems. Google and Facebook and Baidu and IBM are doing it. So are startups like MetaMind and Viv. And new players pop up all the time. But but as recently as World War II, the idea of a non-human computer was a completely foreign to most people.
Confused? Well, the word “computer” once referred to a person whose job involved doing calculations by hand. As explained in the ComputerHistory mini-documentary above, back in the days before there were digital computers, mathematicians would break complex problems into smaller parts and farm the work out to individual human computers to solve. As far back as the mid 1700s for astronomical calculations, this process allowed mathematicians to quickly solve problems they couldn’t before.
Early computers were mostly women, the documentary says, because they would work for less money than men. It was the beginning of a long and unfortunate trend. The place of women in the world of computing remains undervalued today—though that’s beginning to change.
Eventually, many of these female “computers” went on to work on the ENIAC, one of the first general purpose electronic computers, and the good news is that they’re now recognized as some of the pioneers of programming.
Thanks, in part, to them, computation is now automated. But the idea of breaking large computational problems into smaller parts hasn’t gone away. That’s how modern supercomputing services work, from Hadoop on down.