What does “Hello World” really mean?

ProgrammingAlmost every modern programming language tutorial starts out with a short script that simply outputs the phrase “Hello World.” This sample code has been used so much that the phrase has become part of the computer programming lexicon – and its ubiquity has caused the words to lose much of their meaning. A stroll through the annals of programming history, however, give us a pleasant refresher of the true reason many of us started programming.

The first documented instance of the “Hello World” program is in the 1972 documentation for the BCPL language, the predecessor to C. Back then, computers were strange and mystical machines, whose very function inspired mens’ minds to dream. Stanley Kubrick’s timeless film “2001: A Space Odyssey” had been released in 1968, just a few years prior, and artificially intelligent, sentient machines seemed just around the corner. “Hello World” is much more than a simple two-word output – it’s the computer telling us that it is alive.

The true glory in the program, however, and what has led to its ubiquity, is how it positions the developer. The developer is not merely witnessing a live being, he is the one that gave it that life. With a few sentences of code, he has said – “Let there be light.”

This is the primary allure, I believe, that keeps many Artificial Intelligence developers on their path. The AI branch of computer science has been continually dealt blow after blow – for decades the dreamers, futurists, and science fiction authors have had all the fun, while the AI researchers themselves have leveraged massively increased hardware capabilities for only incremental gains.

Often it seems that as computers become more intelligent in their data analysis, such as in trading and anti-spam technology, humans become consistently more clever in finding ways to take advantage of them for profit. In fact, the malicious AI seems to be progressing significantly faster than the good, with viruses currently able extort money and perform blackmail, remain completely hidden and control a user’s PC, and even to take down nuclear-fuel facilities. While Stuxnet, we assume, succeeded in taking down its target, what would have happened if the software had inadvertently turned on us, and taken down our entire power grid instead?

Still, at its basic level, before man’s fear, greed, and thirst for power taints the picture, there are the creators – those who take inanimate objects and bring them to life – giving them the opportunity to mirror ourselves and portray an intelligence, ever feigned. This is the origin of “Hello World,” and a reminder of the real reason that many developers started, and continue, their craft.

Written by Andrew Palczewski

About the Author
Andrew Palczewski is CEO of apHarmony, a Chicago software development company. He holds a Master's degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has over ten years' experience in managing development of software projects.

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