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Language and the Rise of the Algorithm

A wide-ranging history of the intellectual developments that produced the modern idea of the algorithm. 

Bringing together the histories of mathematics, computer science, and linguistic thought, Language and the Rise of the Algorithm reveals how recent developments in artificial intelligence are reopening an issue that troubled mathematicians long before the computer age. How do you draw the line between computational rules and the complexities of making systems comprehensible to people? Here Jeffrey M. Binder offers a compelling tour of four visions of universal computation that addressed this issue in very different ways: G. W. Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator; a universal algebra scheme Nicolas de Condorcet designed during the French Revolution; George Boole’s nineteenth-century logic system; and the early programming language ALGOL, whose name is short for algorithmic language.  
 
These episodes show that symbolic computation has repeatedly become entangled in debates about the nature of communication. To what extent can meaning be controlled by individuals, like the values of a and b in algebra, and to what extent is meaning inevitably social? By attending to this long-neglected question, we come to see that the modern idea of the algorithm is implicated in a long history of attempts to maintain a disciplinary boundary separating technical knowledge from the languages people speak day to day. Machine learning, in its increasing dependence on words, now places this boundary in jeopardy, making its stakes all the more urgent to understand.
 
The idea of the algorithm is a levee holding back the social complexity of language, and it is about to break. This book is about the flood that inspired its construction. 

Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter One
   Symbols and Language in the Early Modern Period
Chapter Two
   The Matter Out of Which Thought Is Formed
Chapter Three
   Symbols and the Enlightened Mind
Chapter Four
   Language without Things
Chapter Five
   Mass Produced Software Components
Coda
   The Age of Arbitrariness
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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