Programmed computers are switching machines, and not directed to an abstract idea

computer-engineering-335To me, as an engineer and inventor, the whole discussion about abstract ideas in relation to processors makes little sense. A computer is a machine, yet there is an ongoing trend to “anthropomorphize” computers. That is: functions that are performed by humans are said to be able to be performed by computers. Anyone who has done any serious programming knows that is not how it works. Let me explain.

Steps that humans can do almost mindlessly, for instance changing paragraph numbers in a text, may be excruciatingly difficult as programming steps. That is because computers are machines that process signals that follow very strict and inflexible routines that have no concept of what the signals mean.

Processors that are used to perform calculations are switching devices. Arithmetic is, of course, a human activity and outside humankind radix-n arithmetic does not exist. The calculating machine itself is a hard-core piece of equipment that will do whatever it is supposed to do, whatever it is told to do, no matter if a user sees, uses, describes or even understands its results or workings.

A calculator does not “calculate,” at least not in the way that humans mean when they use that term. Instead, a calculator merely switches. There is no concept or awareness of a number in a binary digital calculator. A digital calculator is merely a switching machine that processes discrete signals that place the machine in defined states. The meaning of signals is provided by humans assigning a number to a series of binary signals as representing a number, for instance via an icon or character on a key or as a character displayed on a screen. No matter if we paint a 3 or a 5 on a key, to a processor activating that key is merely entering a series of pre-defined signals.

The history of computing demonstrates how extraordinarily difficult it has been to develop a device that performs operations similar to arithmetic. Most of the early calculating devices even in electronic computers were counting or tabulating devices, not logic devices, and were usually realized with rotating wheels or strips of material or pulse counters or other forms of proportionally counting devices. Those machines cannot be characterized as “abstract ideas.” They overwhelm by their complex physical structure.

Modern calculating machines, including computers, use switching devices that are described by binary logic or switching tables also called truth tables that define Boolean functions. One of the first discrete calculating circuits described by Boolean algebra was presented by Claude Shannon of Information Theory fame in his MIT M.S. thesis in 1937. The calculating circuit of Shannon is a binary adder realized by electromechanical relays and is described by a Boolean algebra expression. [1] Shannon does not use truth tables, but provides “postulates” that correspond to a truth table.

The “logic” of Shannon is a description of the behavior of relays. The 0 and 1 are symbolic representations of what Shannon calls the “hinderance” of a switching circuit. If a relay circuit is closed it has zero “hinderance” or zero impedance and is assigned the symbol 0. If a relay circuit is open it is said to have full “hinderance” or infinite impedance and is assigned the symbol 1. The 0 and 1 are not real values of signals but are symbols assigned by a human to a state of a device. Shannon represents the “hinderances” as algebraic variables and describes the physical switching behavior of relays of the “hinderances” with “postulates” or algebraic expressions. The “postulates” of Shannon are thus a descriptive tool of a physical behavior of electrical relays. Shannon concludes that the calculus for switching devices has an equivalence with the calculus of propositions originated by George Boole.

The Boolean algebra is a (happy) coincidence to the physical structure and behavior of relays. The relay structure does not perform logic, but merely switches between states of “hinderance.” By using certain representative tools, a functional behavior of relays can be described by Boolean algebra. To say that the relays network “performs” logic is the tail wagging the dog and is wrong.

In a similar way a feedback op-amp circuit with a capacitor at an input can be described as a differentiator and with a capacitor in the feedback loop as an integrator. However, neither of these circuits actually performs calculus, which is strictly a human activity. In that same sense, a calculator does not actually calculate, nor does it perform logic.

The switching circuit realized from the logic expressions in Shannon is still a physical machine and not an abstract idea expressed in a computer. In a similar way an electrical filter is a physical device of which a performance is described by a complex transfer function, and is not a device that performs the transfer function.

All computing machines and processors are switching machines that process signals. They are not abstract ideas and they do not perform an abstract idea. The abstract idea is read into the machine by humans who find similarity to human activity by translating signals generated by a machine into a shape that humans understand, like symbols, text, images and sound.



[1] I apply a bit of a shortcut in technology from Shannon to Boolean logic described adders in modern computers. Most adders in early computers, such as the ENIAC, used pulse counters and/or flip-flop counters. The use of binary “level” devices such as XOR and AND gates in calculators was a technologically different and later form of switching.


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11 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    December 30, 2015 01:55 am


    Thank you for releasing my comment @1 from spam jail

    However, the conversation seems to have moved on without considering the premise of “explaining” to them who will never listen to, or allow themselves to be confused by, explanations and facts.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    December 24, 2015 11:28 pm


    Read again – this time back into the case and the mutual parties’ stipulation.

    You are not done yet – and the part you have provided here is merely the “abstraction” of that which is “the computer itself

    In other words: you have proven yourself wrong.

    I do have to wonder though, if you even realize that. (and no, there is no “non sequitur” in my post)

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    December 24, 2015 08:11 pm

    Paul @7,

    What the heck is a “generic” computer?
    Isn’t the word “computer” alone, generic?

  • [Avatar for Paul F. Morgan]
    Paul F. Morgan
    December 24, 2015 06:30 pm

    Anon, here is another [actual] read of Alice, as you requested along with your non sequitur:
    “We hold that the claims at issue are drawn to the abstract idea of intermediated settlement, and that merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.”

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    December 24, 2015 04:58 pm

    Newspapers starting to catch onto the $400 fine for not filing electronically through the down and out USPTO e-file system.

    Sorry we’re closed:
    (Where is Justice Kennedy’s weekend fixer-upper engineering student?)

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    December 24, 2015 03:06 pm

    Hey Rational Person,

    Loved your comment on Patent Docs re the power outage at USPTO

    and re-posted it here:

    LMAO 🙂

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    December 24, 2015 02:00 pm


    Actually you are decidedly NOT correct in at least as far as there were claims in the Alice case that both sides of that case stipulated as to meeting the machine prong of 101’s statutory categories.

    Take another read.

  • [Avatar for Paul F. Morgan]
    Paul F. Morgan
    December 24, 2015 12:38 pm

    A nice article, but note that no one is even arguing that a computer itself is an “abstraction.” In fact the Sup. Ct. made it clear that novel improvements in computers and their operations are patentable.
    The current 101 “abstraction” issues are indeed a mess, but those claims actually judicially invalidated* on that basis are typically broad claims, often for an end result, about something to be done on almost any old computer. Also, quite frequently not describing any novel software or algorithm either.

    *not to be confused with some PTO examiners reportedly improperly giving 101 rejections to applications on almost everything.

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    December 23, 2015 01:09 pm

    And, the machines take time, space, and energy to process information. I think part of the problem with the SCOTUS is they seem to have a philosophy of mind that comes from about 1910. They appear to believe that there is no physical basis for their thoughts, but that their mind exists in the spirit world. Read J. Stevens dissent in Bilski.

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    December 23, 2015 07:43 am

    Hi Gene

    My comment caught in spam jail
    Please set it free

  • [Avatar for step back]
    step back
    December 23, 2015 07:42 am

    Hi Peter,

    You say you want to “explain” things.

    Please allow me to explain to you where you stepped off the cliff.
    First you admitted that you are “engineer”.
    To the folk out there who belong to the TPTB class (**) that instantly means you are one of those robotic nerds they see on TV on the Big Bang comedy show.

    Then you admitted you are an “inventor”.
    To the folk out there who are in the class of fellow earth dwelling critters referred to as The Powers To Be (** the TPTB class) that instantly means you look like Doc Brown of the movie Back To The Future with wild uncombed hair flying everywhere and crazy ideas pouring out of your head. More likely than not you are he11 bent on mucking with the space time continuum and destroying life as they know it here on Earth.

    Then again you have probably hired one of those crafty patent lawyers to write obfuscating patent claims where the truth is that they are directed to abstract ideas and for sure will stifle the inevitably flowing juices of innovation which, without the intervention of human hand, made this country great again.

    So there you have it except that you try to talk rational to a crowd of barely evolved monkey brains who, with their advanced emotional intelligence know this is all gobbledygook and jiggery pokery,

    Suggest you re-watch the trial scene in the movie, Planet of the Apes (the one starring Charleton Heston):