Originally published at: http://kwontum.blogspot.com/2013/10/does-not-compute.html

Let’s talk about language. How amazing is it that using sounds or symbols, we can implant in another person’s mind an entirely new state? We can describe a place that person has never seen, we can construct a belief that person has never considered, we can convey an emotion that person has never felt.

But not without errors in transmission. Remember the game, “telephone”? Why can’t language be more precise? Let me try to explain this in an unconventional way and see what it means for programming languages.

Imagine a language in which the intent of the communicator is completely unambiguous to a qualified listener. I’ll use CD audio recordings as an illustration. With good enough equipment, a listener can hear a soundscape that is indistinguishable from the original.

But most people don’t listen to CDs anymore. They listen to streaming or downloaded music. The major difference is that these recordings are compressed. Those parts of the audio signal that people can’t hear well are removed. This leads to degradation of the signal, but much, much less information is required while most people never notice. So it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. In fact, there’s a whole class of probabilistic data structures in computer science that sacrifice accuracy for performance and size.

Likewise, human languages have each been reduced to use only a subset of all possible sounds and symbols. Take the word, “hot”. Here’s a list of things that can be described as hot: fire, chile pepper, horseradish, supermodel, basketball player, a fashion trend, the color of a room. In English, we use this single, overloaded word to represent this array of meanings. Yet we’re rarely confused due to our evolved talents for lexical ambiguity resolution (as so wonderfully explained by my new colleague here).

In other words, when a word can take multiple meanings, we’re terrifically adept at taking context into account to disambiguate the intended meaning. This permits us to compress our language into a manageable size. More importantly, it permits us to be sloppy. The sentence, “I ain’t git no donuts, but I gotta coke,” is completely understandable despite all the errors.

Computers aren’t like us. Computers are purely logical units that mindlessly apply instructions to data because they have no governing mind. At the processor level, they have no innate capacity to correct erroneous instructions or to resolve ambiguities. This is what makes coding hard. A sentence like “Come to the kitchen” is perfectly understandable to us since we can guess there is supposed to be a period at the end to indicate the sentence has ended. A computer would say the sentence never finished so the instruction cannot be processed. (Interestingly, there are companies that hire adults with autism or Asperger’s since they are often exceptional at handling and debugging code.)

For the beginning programmer, I think this is an obvious, but useful insight. Sort of like realizing the center squares of a Rubik’s cube don’t move: those center squares cease to be puzzle pieces and become stationary references to guide your manipulations. The stupid silicon insight sets an exacting reference from which one can evaluate one’s own code. Instead of wondering why the dumb computer didn’t get what he was (not) clearly telling it to do, the novice can expend that brainpower on avoiding the typos and syntax errors whose importance he now understands.