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8 June 2013 | NewScientist | 5


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OUR world is written in code.
These days, almost anything
electrical or mechanical requires
many thousands of lines of code
to work. Consider a modern car:
you could argue that from the
driver’s perspective, it’s now a
computer that gives you control
over an engine, drivetrain and
wheels. And with cars beginning
to drive themselves, the code will
soon be in even more control.
But who controls the code?
Those who write the programs
behind the machines have
become hugely lionised. Silicon
Valley courts software developers
with huge salaries and copious
stock options, throwing in perks
ranging from gourmet food to
free haircuts. The rest of us can
only look on, excluded by esoteric
arguments about the merits of
rival programming techniques
and languages.
Like the clerics who once
controlled written language,
programmers have a vested
interest in keeping the status
quo. Software development has
become a highly specialised
discipline, requiring considerable
skill and training. But changes
are afoot: the programmers’
monopoly may be about to
disappear (see page 36).

A new generation of
programming languages is
emerging. Easier to grasp than
their arcane predecessors, they
offer more direct control over
hardware to the untutored. The
reign of the specialist developer
may be drawing to a close. Bad
news for them, perhaps – the days
of those haute cuisine cafeterias
may be numbered – but of
enormous benefit to society.
We know future workplaces
will require ever more expertise
in programming, but students

remain reluctant to learn to code.
Mastering the syntax of a modern
programming language is no
more appealing to many than
getting to grips with the grammar
of ancient Latin. The new
languages could change that.
Others disenfranchised by the
current software industry should
also grab the new opportunities.
If the history of computing is
any guide, more democratic
programming will eventually
yield another revolution in the
way we interact with machines.

As Kevin Sullivan of the University
of Virginia says, experts in every
domain will be able “to express
and realise computational intent
directly, rather than having to
have it understood and translated
by software experts”.
The fidelity of that translation
is limited by the size of the gap
between what users want and
what developers can give them;
and by the very different styles
of communication employed in
each discipline. When the gap is
too wide, the result can be an
expensive fiasco: witness, for
example, the billions of pounds
spent on a now-scrapped attempt
to revamp the UK’s systems for
recording patients’ medical data.
In future, people who know
about healthcare will write the
software needed for data analysis,
Sullivan says, while those who
know about transport will be
able to program self-driving cars.
Creatives will benefit too: talented
photographers could program
digital darkrooms to work the way
they want them to, for example.
We will still need “code behind
the code”, of course, and the
professionals to write it. But if we
can all program – perhaps without
even realising we are doing it – the
world will be ours to write. n

Writing the world

It’s time we all learned to control the machines that run our lives

IT USED to be called Earth’s twin.
With much the same size, mass
and composition as our home,
Venus was a lush jungle planet in
the popular imagination of the
early 20th century. Muggier than
Earth, perhaps, but otherwise
not so very different.
That, of course, turned out to be
entirely incorrect. Venus’s surface
is sweltering and its atmosphere
suffocating: its being closer to the

sun made a dramatic, not an
incremental, difference to its fate.
That realisation has all but
extinguished hopes of finding a
twin for any earthly environment
in our solar system. (Iced-over
oceans on moons of the gas giants
are almost our last hope.)
So the search for Earth’s twin
has moved much further afield:
to the families of other stars. Work
to identify the “habitable zones”

in which such planets might exist
has turned up some startling
insights – not just about them, but
also our own planet (see page 40).
If the latest models are accurate,
Earth and Venus really might have
been twins, had the orbit of one
been just a tiny bit different. But
rather than two clement Earths,
there might have been two
infernal Venuses. That’s a doubly
humbling thought. n

Separated at birth

“More democratic
programming will yield a
revolution in the way we
interact with machines”

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