University of Birmingham > Talks@bham > Lab Lunch > The history, nature, and significance of virtual machinery

The history, nature, and significance of virtual machinery

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dan Ghica.

Over the last six or seven decades there have been a lot of separate developments adding functionality of different sorts to computing systems including (in no significant order): memory management, paging, cacheing, interfaces of many kinds, interfacing protocols, device drivers, adaptive schedulers, privilege mechanisms, resource control mechanisms, file-management systems, interpreters, compilers and run-time systems for a wide variety of types of programming language, garbage collectors, varied types of data-structure and operations on them, tracing and debugging tools, pipes, sockets, shared memory systems, firewalls, virus checkers, security systems, network protocols, operating systems, application development systems, etc. etc. which together have produced something that is very familiar to computer scientists and software engineers, though different experts know about different sub-sets of these developments and the whole package is not often described adequately, and which is very familiar to millions of users, who are incapable of describing what they are using.

A consequence of all these developments is that we can now have, in addition to all the physical computing machinery that we use, varying collections of non-physical machinery made up of various kinds of interacting components with causal powers that operate in parallel with the causal powers of the underlying machines, and can help to control those physical machines, but with different kinds of granularity and different kinds of functionality from the physical machines. These are running virtual machines (RVMs), as opposed to the mathematical abstractions that are sometimes called virtual machines (e.g. a universal turing machine, the java virtual machine, the/a linux virtual machine) whose instances are among the RVMs.

To illustrate what I am talking about I’ll start with a simple demo. I’ll try to characterise some of the forms of control and self-control that are made possible by the use of RVMs and suggest that biological evolution discovered the need for them long before we did and probably produced more complex and varied kinds than we have so far, with implications for the future of machine intelligence, for the future of philosophy of mind, and the final removal of what T.H.Huxley called “the explanatory gap” between the physical and the mental, which was, and still is, a serious problem for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

This is really a request for help on my part: I would like corrections if I make any incorrect historical or other factual claims, and suggestions for improved ways of summarising and explaining the significance of all these developments, especially for the benefit of people who do not work in computer science or software engineering.

This talk is part of the Lab Lunch series.

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