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SEAC, Pilot ACE, EDVAC, and UNIVAC I all had ultra-

sonic memories.

The principle is illustrated in Fig. 1. A train of pulses

Ultrasonic memories played an important role in the representing the number to be stored is modulated

early development of digital computers, but are now onto a carrier and applied to a piezoelectric crystal in

only of historical interest. The report on the EDVAC contact with a column of mercury. The ultrasonic

drafted by von Neumann in June 1945 on behalf of the pulses so generated travel along the column until they

group at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, reach another crystal at the f a r end. This converts them

Philadelphia, clearly envisaged this type of memory, back into electric signals, which are amplified and

although it did not describe the physical principles on rectified. Theresultingpulses are applied to a gate

demodulator

CLEAR

waveform

AL waveform

Write

wavefo

Digits in Digits out

Figure 1. Ultrasonic memory.

1812 UNDECIDABLE PROBLEMS

together with pulsesfrom a continuously running clock carries out a computational task. At that time, “com-

pulse generator. This gating operation serves the twin puter” meant “one who computes” (Le. a person who

purposes of regeneration and synchronization. The carries out a calculation), but the model applies equally

emerging pulses, which are exact replicas of the orig- well to modern electronic computers. Turing then

inal pulses, are reapplied to the modulator and con- proved rigorouslythat no Turing machine can solve the

tinue to circulate. The operations of reading, clearing, so-called HaltingProblem, the problem of determining

and writing can be performed by applying to the gates whether Turing machines eventually halt. Some do,

shown suitable waveforms accurately synchronized some don’t: the problem is, given a Turing machine

with the clock. A typical main memory consisted of a along with its input data, to determine whether or not

group of 32 tanks, as the columns were called, each it will ever finish its task and halt. Of course, one can

between 0.5 and 1.5 meters long and giving a delay of run the Turing machine step by step, and, if it halts,

between one-third and 1 ms. one would see that it had. The difficulty isthat if it does

not halt then this method will not reveal that fact; no

In the rnid-l950s, ultrasonic memories using a fine

matter howlong one continues the simulation, it is

nickel wire in the form of a coil as the propagation

conceivable that the machine would have halted if

medium appeared in some low-cost computers. The

processing had continued an additional few moments.

waves were excited by making use of the magneto-

strictive properties of the nickel. Turing’s proofis a formalization of the following

idea. Establish a pairing between all possible Turing

Bibliography machines (there are infinitely many) and all possible

1956. Wilkes, M. V. Automatic Digital Computers. New York: sets of input data (also infinitely many) in a systematic

John Wiley. way. Now suppose there were a Turing machine H that

1985. Wilkes, M. V. Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer. could solve the Halting Problem. Starting from H, one

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. could build a “perverse” machine P that acts as fol-

Maurice V. Wilkes lows: P takes its input data x and determines (by using

H a s a subroutine) whether the particular machine M,

which is paired with x, would halt or run forever on

input x; and P then perversely either halts or enters

an infinite loop, whichever causes it to behave differ-

ently from M. Now P has succeeded in behaving dif-

ferently from every machine; specifically,it differs from

machine M on the particular input data x that is

One of this century’s major intellectual discoveries is matched with M in the pairing. But this is impossible,

that there aresome perfectly precise problems that can since P would have to differ evenfrom itself. So H can-

never be solved. This is a technical result, not a mys- not exist after all.

tical one. There is nothing ineffable about these prob-

Turing’s method of proof is very general. It applies

lems; indeed, one can give specific examples of them.

equally well to show that itis impossible to write a

Nor should this result be confused with the claim that

Pascal program, say, that can test Pascal programs

some problems (e.g. what is the meaning of life?) are

for infinite loops. If this were the end of the story,

too imprecise to be solved computationally. Actually,

Turing’s result would merely establish certain limits

these unsolvable problems are just as precise as the

on self-referentialapplication, suggesting, for example,

problem of computing a sum. Also, the result is not

that if one wants to test programs written in a partic-

based on the fact that some problems are just too large

ular language, then one must write the tests in a differ-

to solve in practical terms. Rather, these problems are

ent language. But at the same time that Turing was

unsolvable even under the assumption that wholly un-

describing his machines, Alonzo Church and various

reasonable amounts of time and space are available for

other logicians were proving that manymodels of

their solution. By way of contrast, it is a trivial matter

computation (including Turing machines) thatare

under such an assumption to write a program that

superficially very different are in fact all equivalent.

plays a perfect game of chess: just explore allof the

As a result of this work, theChurch-Turing Thesis has

possibilitiessystematically. (There are only a finite

become generally accepted: any method of perform-

number of possibilities, but that number is so astro-

ing a computation that might conceivablybe proposed

nomically large that this’ exhaustive approach will

in thefuture,nomatter how apparently powerful,

never be of practical use.)

will turn out to be performable by a Turing machine.

In the 1930s, the mathematician Alan Turing intro- This implies that the Halting Problem is unsolvable,

duced a conceptual automaton, now called a Turing not merely in the sense that no Turing machine can

machine, to model the process by which a computer solve it, but that more generally, no computational

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