Watch Computer Scientist Answers Computer Questions From Twitter | Tech Support
My name is Professor David J. Malan,
I teach computer science at Harvard,
and I’m here today to answer your questions from Twitter.
This is Computer Science Support.
First up from tadproletarian,
How do search engines work so fast?
Well, the short answer really is distributed computing,
which is to say that Google and Bing,
and other such search engines,
they don’t just have one server
and they don’t even have just one really big server,
rather they have hundreds, thousands,
probably hundreds of thousands or more servers nowadays
around the world.
And so when you and I go in and to Google or Bing
and maybe type in a word to search for like, cats,
it’s quite possible that when you hit enter
and that keyword like cats is sent over the internet
to Google or to Bing, it’s actually spread out ultimately
across multiple servers,
some of which are grabbing the first 10 results,
some of which are grabbing the next 10 results,
the next 10 results,
so that you see just one collection of results,
but a lot of those ideas,
a lot of those search results came from different places.
And this eliminates
what could potentially be a bottleneck of sorts
if all of the information you needed
had to come from one specific server
that might very well be busy when you have that question.
Nick asks, Will computer programming jobs be taken
over by AI within the next 5 to 10 years?
This is such a frequently asked question nowadays
and I don’t think the answer will be yes.
And I think we’ve seen evidence of this already
in that early on when people were creating websites,
they were literally writing out code
in a language called HTML by hand.
But then of course, software came along,
tools like Dreamweaver that you could download
on your own computer
that would generate some of that same code for you.
More recently though, now you can just sign up for websites
like Squarespace, and Wix, and others
whereby click, click, click
and the website is generated for you.
So I dare say certainly in some domains,
that AI is really just an evolution of that trend
and it hasn’t put humans out of business
as much as it has made you and AI much more productive.
AI, I think, and the ability soon to be able
to program with natural language
is just going to enhance what you and I
can already do logically, but much more mechanically.
And I think too it’s worth considering
that there’s just so many bugs
or mistakes in software in the world
and there’s so many features
that humans wish existed in products present and future
that are to-do list, so to speak,
is way longer than we’ll ever have time
to finish in our lifetimes.
And so I think the prospect
of having an artificial intelligence boost our productivity
and work alongside us, so to speak,
as we try to solve problems, is just gonna mean
that you and I and the world together
can solve so many more problems
and move forward together at an even faster rate.
All right, next up Sophia, who asks,
How do microchips even work?
It’s just a green piece of metal.
Well, here for instance, we have a whole bunch of microchips
on what’s called a logic board
or sometimes known as a motherboard.
There’s a lot of ports
that you might be familiar with, for instance.
Like here’s some ports for audio,
here’s some ports for networking,
here’s some ports for USB and some other devices as well.
And those ports meanwhile are connected
to lots of different chips on this board
that know how to interpret the signals from those ports.
And perhaps the biggest chip on this motherboard
tends to be this thing here called the CPU,
or the central processing unit,
which is really the brains of the computer.
And what you can’t necessarily quite see,
’cause most of this is actually paint and not traces,
but if I flip this around, you’ll actually see,
in the right light and with the right angle,
a whole bunch of traces running up,
down, left, and right on this logic board
that’s connecting all of these various microchips.
And by trace, I mean a tiny little wire
that’s been etched into the top
or the bottom of this circuit board
that connects two parts they’re on.
Now, what might these microchips be doing?
Well, again, they might be simply interpreting signals
that are coming in from these ports,
two, they might be performing mathematical operations,
doing something with those signals
in order to convert input into output,
or they might just be storing information ultimately.
In fact, there’s all different types of memory
on a logic board like this, be it RAM, or ROM, or the like,
and so some of those chips
might very well be storing information
for as long as the computer’s plugged in,
or in some cases, depending on the device,
even when the power goes off.
All right, next a question from Nke_chi.
So if anyone can learn coding,
what do computer scientists do
for four years in university?
Typically, in an undergraduate program in computer science,
or computer engineering, or a similar field,
someone spends much more time learning
about the field itself than about programming specifically.
So as such, you might study not only a bit of programming,
but also mathematics, certain fundamentals
that transcend the particular classes you might’ve taken
in middle school or high school,
but that can be used to solve grander real world problems,
you might learn something about networks,
how you can send information from point A to point B,
you might learn about graphics,
how you can display things on the screen
or even create interactive animations or the like,
you might learn how to leverage certain ideas
from mathematics and other fields
to implement your very own artificial intelligence nowadays,
whereby you use probability and statistics
and information more generally to try to predict
what a intelligent individual, or in this case computer,
might say in response to a question.
So computer science itself is a very broad field
and programming is really just a tool
that you tend to learn along the way.
How do zeros and ones turn into the internet?
Well, I think the simplest answer there
is that the internet is built
upon layers and layers and layers of ideas.
And if we start at the lowest of those levels,
zeros and ones, you have something called binary
where zeros and ones can be used
to represent any other numbers as well.
And if we use more and more zeros and ones,
more and more binary digits or bits so to speak,
we can count up higher and higher and higher.
And then if you and I agree that all right,
well, let’s not just use these patterns
of zeros and ones to represent numbers,
what if we reserve some of these patterns
to represent letters of like the English alphabet,
and then maybe you and I can decide
to reserve certain patterns of zeros and ones
to represent colors like red and green and blue
and combinations thereof.
Well, once we have the ability to represent colors,
we could then represent whole pictures,
because what’s a picture on your phone or a computer screen?
Well, it’s really just a grid of dots,
each of which has its own color.
So this is all to say that even if we start
at this lowest level of just zeros and ones,
so long as you and I and all of the devices we use
agree to follow some standard like this,
we can build these layers and layers of abstraction,
so to speak, on top of one another until finally,
you and I come up with a pattern of zeros and ones
that represents Send this piece of information
from me over there.
And thus, we have something like the internet.
majinbuu asks, Can someone that knows computer science
explain to me why computers use binary coding
and not trinary when trinary is supposed to be faster?
So it’s not necessarily the case that a trinary system,
which would use three symbols,
for instance, zero, one, and two,
would necessarily be faster than binary,
because binary, using just zero and one,
tends to be simpler to implement
and also more robust to potential errors.
Or if you’re familiar with voltage levels,
like in a battery, it’s very easy for a computer
to distinguish something for like zero volts or three volts,
but it gets a little harder
if we try to draw the lines somewhere in between,
because there’s just a higher probability
that a computer might mistake a voltage level,
like 1.5 in the middle,
as maybe being a little closer to off than on
or to on than off.
Here too is where
even though there might be mathematical efficiencies
in real world efficiencies to using trinary,
otherwise known as ternary, like a zero, a one,
and a two digit instead of just zeros and ones,
it turns out because our world runs on electricity nowadays
and there’s so much momentum behind binary
that it just tends to be a net positive.
rachaelp95 asks, Why is every Windows solution,
‘Have you tried restarting?’
And why does that always work?
So that’s a very heavy handed solution
to what are typically just bugs or mistakes in software,
for instance, Windows in this case.
Restarting a computer just starts everything from scratch.
So all of the computer’s short-term memory is lost
and everything starts in pristine condition,
which is to say that it starts
in exactly the way that the programmers
at Microsoft intended without potentially the distractions
of the computer being in some weird state
or condition that the programmers just didn’t anticipate.
Maybe you clicked on some buttons in a weird order,
maybe you opened a strange file,
but you maybe you got the computer into a state
that just wasn’t programmed for properly.
Jason Witmer now asks, What’s the best operating system?
Well, this is one of these questions
in computing we would call a religious question,
since it evokes a religious debate
as to which might be best.
Of course, among the most popular operating systems
out there are Windows and macOS,
but there’s also one you might not have heard of,
which is called Linux, which is actually very omnipresent
in the enterprise world.
So many of today’s servers actually run Linux
and so many of today’s desktops
or laptops though run Windows or macOS.
Now, that’s not to say you couldn’t run
all of those operating systems in different contexts,
and some of us do actually run Linux on our own computers,
so a lot of it is really boils down to personal preference.
I wouldn’t even say that there’s one best operating system,
but there tend to be correlations
between the operating systems people use
and the applications they have in mind.
So Windows, for instance, is so popular
in the world of PCs and desktops and laptops.
macOS is to some extent,
particularly in academia and certain countries,
but not necessarily on the same scale.
Linux, by contrast, is again, very much used heavily
in the server side industry, but so is Windows as well.
So a lot of the choice for operating systems
sometimes comes from just what’s most appropriate,
what’s most popular, what’s most supportive,
but some of it comes too from just personal preference
of the engineer, maybe the first engineer that you hire
to make one of those decisions.
So it’s more about what’s best for you
and not so much best in general.
Next, Giulio Magnifico asks,
Why aren’t computers getting cheaper?
Well, computers, or at least computer parts
inside of computers, do tend to get cheaper.
The catch is that your expectations
and my expectations just keep rising.
We want our phones, our laptops,
our desktops to do more and more
in the way of the software that they run,
the games that we use,
and just how quickly they perform for us.
So even though some of those parts
are getting less expensive,
you and I want them to do more and more
and be faster and larger in quantity,
and so as a result, I dare say,
that the price isn’t going down as far as you might hope.
That said, nowadays you can get,
for the same amount of money from yesteryear,
much, much more in the way of computing power.
So arguably, it’s working to our benefit in some cases.
Next up from DairoNabilah,
Can someone explain cloud computing
to me like a five-year-old?
Cloud computing is essentially
you using someone else’s servers
that someone is paying to rent, for instance, or timeshare.
So this isn’t really a new idea or a new technology,
rather it’s a better branding
of a technique that’s been used for years,
not just in the computer world,
but in the real world as well,
whereby someone like Google or Microsoft or Apple
or others nowadays might be able to afford lots and lots
and lots of servers and then make those servers available
in part to me, to you, and many other customers as well.
Hey, I’m Marcus.
Well, Marcus asks, How does computer memory work?
Think of computer memory as really being driven
by a whole bunch of switches
that can either be turned on and off.
So for instance, if I take this here light switch,
which is currently off, I could simply say
that this switch here
is representing the number zero in binary.
But if I turn the switch on,
well now I can say that I’m representing the number one.
Now, of course, I can only count as high as zero to one
with a single light switch,
but what if I bring over a second light switch,
like this one here?
If we started zero in this way,
turn on this switch first and claim that it’s one,
let me now be more creative
and turn this one off and this one on,
and now claim this is how a computer’s memory
could represent the number two.
And now if I turn this switch back on,
giving me a fourth pattern,
this is how I might represent the number three.
Now, of course, if we add more and more of these switches,
more and more of these light bulbs,
we can count even higher than three.
And indeed that’s what a computer’s memory
is ultimately doing.
It’s using lots and lots of little tiny switches,
otherwise known as transistors,
to turn the flow of electricity on and off,
and then it’s got other types of hardware
called, for instance, capacitors
that have a capacity to hold onto some of that electricity
just like the light bulb there being on.
All right, next, Donny asks,
How do you explain Web3 to people?
So Web3, like Web 2 and retrospectively, Web 1,
are really just buzzwords that describe sort of phases
of the internet or the worldwide web as you and I know it.
For instance, back in the day,
when there was just the worldwide web,
now perhaps referred to as Web version one
information was largely static.
If you were to create a website on the internet,
you would type up your code, you would type up your content,
you would put it on a server somewhere,
and someone could read that information,
but it was you, the web developer,
or you, the owner of the website,
that was creating that content
for other people to actually read and consume.
In Web 2, the world became much more dynamic in recent years
whereby now websites tend to have databases
and they have more sophistication,
so that a lot of the content in websites today
are actually coming from me and from you.
So if you think of any social media site,
it’s not the owners of those sites
that are creating most of the content,
it’s you and me as the users of those same websites.
But in Web 2, everything is nonetheless very centralized,
whether you’re Twitter or Facebook, now Meta,
or other companies, all of that data,
even in the world of social media,
that’s coming from me and you
is actually being stored centrally on those company servers.
So Web 3.0 or Web3, so to speak,
is really about transitioning away potentially
from that very centralized model
to one that’s more distributed, where the data
that you and I are creating,
whereby the data you and I are consuming,
is actually distributed over multiple servers
over a technique called blockchain,
for instance in some cases,
whereby there’s not necessarily one owner of that data,
but really collective ownership and therefore verification
that the data maybe indeed came from me and you.
Next, a question from gomotigers,
Can someone explain to me the difference
between firmware and software?
Hardware is physical, software is code, wtf is firmware?
Firmware is really a synonym for a type of software.
So firmware is just software,
but it tends to be software
that comes built into your hardware.
And you can think of in the simplest scenario
that firmware is software
that is just completely integrated into the hardware
and itself cannot be changed or even upgraded.
But that’s a bit of an oversimplification,
because even firmware typically,
when it comes in a computer,
when it comes in a phone, or some other device,
can very often be updated.
Because the firmware is the software
that’s really closest to the hardware,
and in that sense, it might very well be the most important.
And if anything goes wrong with the firmware,
you might not even be able to turn that device on,
whether it’s a phone, a computer,
or even your refrigerator nowadays.
All right, that’s all the questions for today.
We hoped you learned a little something along the way.
We’ll see you next time.