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Repurposing Turing's "Human Brake"

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1 Author(s)
Hicks, M. ; Duke University

1945, Alan Turing theorized one of the major stumbling blocks to computing technology's potential, coining the term "the human brake." The human brake slowed computing processes by delegating actions to human operators that should ideally reside within the capabilities of a machine and its programming. Turing went on to outline a stored program computer that aimed to revolutionize the current state of the art. Holding programmatic instructions for data manipulation within the machine would vastly increase the rate of speed at which input and output could be run through the central processor. Eliminating "all that is done by the normal human operator" and transferring these functions to the machine, not only increased speed but also would, it was hoped, reduce the level of error.1 In the strictest sense, Turing's human brake as then articulated is barely recognizable today as an impediment to computing speed and efficacy. But in a broader sense, the human brake has never left the field of electronic computing. It has become transformed over the course of its historical trajectory, becoming increasingly abstract rather than being outright eliminated. This essay aims to provide a brief historical discussion of incarnations of the human brake throughout the 20th century. My hope is that by slightly stretching and reorienting the concept functionally, while trying to remain true to its theoretical roots, we can create a useful tool for rethinking aspects computing's future as well as its past, as Turing did in 1945.

Published in:

Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE  (Volume:30 ,  Issue: 4 )