FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Transistors and Minecraft

So if you know someone under the age of 18 you’ve doubtless come to know about Minecraft. Simply put, Minecraft is to today’s kids what Legos were to older generations — a limitless tool for building whole worlds to explore. It’s more fun than Lego because you can interact with the things you build in completely different ways. Your life in the world of Minecraft can be affected by other forces such as time, weather, and even hostile monsters. Not only that, but you can create almost limitless things using simple and predictable building blocks.

In short it’s the perfect tool for helping people understand computers at their most basic levels. Today we tend to be incredibly removed from the processes that actually take place inside our computers. Electrons whiz by in a billionth of a second, effecting change and combining to form complex environments for us to interact with. But at the heart of every computer is a simple building block: the transistor.

The transistor is the simplest unique bit of computing, much as the atom is the simplest unique bit of reality. (Let’s not get into subatomic particles right now.) It’s a simple device that lets electricity go one way if you send it current one way, and another way if you send it current another way. It’s a switch, in other words, and if you combine about 20 of them you can build a logic gate, a way to allow a very simple instruction to be executed. Combine hundreds or thousands of logic gates and you have a simple processing unit, and combine hundreds of simple processing units and you have the CPU of a simple computer. Add a couple dozen more powerful CPU-sized processors and some ways to interact with the real world and you actually have a computer. But at its heart it’s all about that one transistor, that one little sliver of silicon that sends electricity in two different directions depending on what you tell it to do.

In what is perhaps the most bizarre use of Minecraft, people have actually used it to build computers within the game. Here I have to wonder if in some invisible way, the guiding hand of artificial intelligence is somehow teaching a whole new generation of humans how to build a new generation of computers. By creating virtual computers, a new generation of students will learn the skills required to build real ones, and we get ever close to a reality where we’re all actually in The Matrix. You see, my paranoid self says, that movie was 16 years ago. That’s long enough for a lot of Minecraft users to have never seen it or learned from it. That’s probably just what the computers have been waiting for.

In the meantime, we adults who still fondly remember Legos will sit and watch and wonder, and at the very least thank our lucky stars that when it comes to Minecraft, at least there aren’t any pieces that roll around on the floor and hurt like heck when you step on them.