Touching the Core

Core memory

The IBM Learning Center in Armonk, New York, is decorated with fascinating artifacts of early information processing technology. Just outside the restaurant where you hang up your coat is a box of core memory from the mid 20th century. You’re not supposed to touch, but I touched one of the rings anyway. One bit per fingertip. The cores resemble small refrigerator magnets and are suspended on a grid of what looks like chicken wire. You look at them and immediately perceive how a change of physical state would correspond to a change of logical state. It would only take a little sophomore year physics to fill in the details. As time went on the logical model stayed the same but the physical system literally dipped beneath the level of human perception. If machines are ever to strike us intelligent, this unknowability will be a necessary part.

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