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Communications of the ACM


The March Into the Black Hole of Complexity

The March into the Black Hole of Complexity, illustration


In June 2002, communications published my Viewpoint "Rebirth of the Computer Industry," in which I expressed hope that the past complexity sins of the computer industry had been admitted and that something positive could happen.5 Instead, complexity has increased at an accelerated and alarming rate. I pointed to many fundamental problems in my previous Viewpoint; here, I emphasize two aspects: the hardware-software mismatch and the state of affairs in developing and sustaining software systems. Both are contributing root causes introducing enormous risks and impacting digital-age safety, security, and integrity. If the world ever hopes to climb out of the black hole of software complexity it will involve addressing these aspects in a constructive manner.

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Hardware-Software Mismatch and Consequences

During the late 1950s, Robert (Bob) Barton pioneered the idea of designing the hardware to accommodate the needs of software; in particular programming languages in the design of the Burroughs B5000. For example, he used the Ɓukasiewicz's concept of Reverse Polish Notation as the means of expression evaluation. There were several other software relevant innovations as well. Burroughs continued to develop the B5500 and 6500.1 I fondly remember Burroughs provided a pedagogical game that one could clearly learn the underlying principles for Algol and Cobol program translation and execution.


James Wolff

A possible solution to the problem of complexity in computers is the "SP Theory of Intelligence "and its realisation in the "SP Computer Model", developed over a period of about 17 years, aiming to simplify and integrate observations and concepts across artificial intelligence, mainstream computing, mathematics, and human learning, perception, and cognition, with information compression as a unifying theme.

Because the SP system is designed to simplify and integrate concepts across a broad canvass, and because it works entirely by compressing information, it has potential to be a "universal framework for the representation and processing of diverse kinds of knowledge" (UFK) [Section III in "Big data and the SP theory of intelligence" (PDF, IEEE Access, 2, 301-315, 2014,].

There is potential in the SP system to reduce to one the several hundred high-level programming languages which are are listed in Wikipedia, plus large numbers of assembly languages, machine languages, mark-up languages, style-sheet languages, query languages, modelling languages, and more.

There is also potential in the SP system to reduce to one the nearly 4,000 different `extensions' for computer files, each one representing a distinct type of file.

And there is potential in the SP system for substantial reductions in the complexity within computer systems themselves, especially in software.

Several publications about the SP system may be found on

Gerry Wolff

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