von Neumann wrote a report describing the idea of the stored pro- gram, where the instructions are held in the computer’s memory just as data are.The instructions themselves can be manipulated, making possible, for instance, compilers—programs that convert human- language–like commands into binary-based machine language for the computer.With other features, including a central processing unit and the use of binary numbers and Boolean algebra, this von Neumann architecture is still the standard in computer design. In 1949, the first stored program computer was built by Maurice Wilkes at Cambridge University. Not long after, in 1951, computers came of practical age when Eckert and Mauchly delivered a UNIVAC (Universal Auto- matic Computer),the first successful commercial electronic computer, to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
With their size and huge power consumption, these machines were hopeless as candidates for the artificial minds of mobile robots, but the idea of simulating human thinking appeared early in their history.The most significant insights came in 1950 from the British mathematician Alan Turing, whose earlier work had dealt with allied subjects. In 1937, in a paper concerned with the nature of mathemati- cal proof, he proposed a method to break any mathematical problem into a series of steps.This is exactly how a computer program works, and so although Turing was not writing about computers per se, his process amounted to a theoretical description of a modern computer before a single one had been built.
DuringWorldWar II,Turing, as one of the team of analysts work- ing on Enigma code breaking, had an opportunity to come into con- tact with real computers. Although much secrecy surrounded the project, it seems likely, as Andrew Hodges notes in his book Alan Turing: the Enigma, that Turing was exposed to the capabilities of the Colossus computer. In any event, in 1950,Turing wrote the seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” with the opening sentence “I propose to consider the question ‘Can machines think?’ ”
Turing believed that if a computer could do any and all math- ematical operations, “We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all purely intellectual fields,” and proposed the