Turing Machine Gets the Lego Treatment

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 20 2012 5:49 PM

Turing Machine Gets the Lego Treatment

Saturday would have been the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, the English mathematician widely regarded as the father of computer science. Among his many contributions to the world is the Turing machine, a device that helped define two fundamental ideas for the Information Age: algorithm and computation.

The machine, as Turing described in 1936, uses an infinite strip of tape with various symbols printed on it. As the tape goes through the machine, the machine reacts to each symbol according to predetermined rules. The concept is used to explain the logic of computer algorithms and helps us understand what is capable of being computed.


A true Turing machine is an abstract concept, but Jeroen van den Bos and Davy Landman of the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica built this working model out of the Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics kit.

In this model, the long bar with switches represents the infinite strip of tape (though as van den Bos and Landman explain on their website, they couldn’t get an infinite supply of Lego blocks, so they limited themselves to 32 positions). The Lego sensor reads the position of each switch and uses those bits of information to answer the given math question. It’s an imaginative demonstration of simple computation, and an eye-opening illustration of the ideas that gave rise to today’s complex computers.

Via BoingBoing.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Adam Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @atsneed.


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