Representational image. Flickr Commons
Representational image. Flickr Commons

In 1789 Gottfried Leibniz published a paper announcing his invention of the binary code. Twenty-four year later, after a Jesuit in Beijing sent him illustrations of the Chinese trigram and hexagrams, Leibniz published a second paper crediting the Chinese with inventing the first binary code.

The explanation for Leibniz’s remarkable claim had to await the advent of the digital revolution in the 20th century. In the 1920s, the so-called father of the information age, Claude Shannon, realized the binary code was ideal for the design of electronic circuits, the precursors to electronic chips. He used the binary number 1 to mean positive (on, an electric current) and the binary number 0 to mean negative (off, no electrical current).

Moreover, Shannon realized we can assign “arbitrary” values to the binary code. A string of binary numbers can represent data, sound, still and moving images, or any symbol. If we agree on the given attributes, he reasoned, it becomes a standard. One of the first such standards was the ASCII code for computer keyboards. The binary number for the capital letter A is 01000001.

The Chinese binary code also uses “arbitrary” attributes. The whole and broken lines, equivalent to 1 and 0, denote positive and negative, as well as a wide range of other generic concepts that can be classified as either positive or negative: day-night, male-female, growth-decay, etc. The trigram and hexagram, combinations of whole and broken lines, are “gradations” of these two generic values in discrete, binary steps.

The ancient Chinese conceived the binary code after realizing that nature itself is a binary phenomenon, a constant interaction between mutually dependent opposites

The ancient Chinese conceived the binary code after realizing that nature itself is a binary phenomenon, a constant interaction between mutually dependent opposites – growth-decay, advancing-retreating, ruler-ruled, action-inaction, etc. All aspects of Chinese civilization, from Confucianism to martial arts and health to aesthetics, were based on harmonizing binary opposites.

In the 1940s, Leibniz’s claim came full circle. The scientist Norbert Wiener developed cybernetics, the basis for the automatic pilot and many other computerized systems. Cybernetics is derived from the Greek word meaning “steersman.”

The cybernetic logic in autopilots “steers” an aircraft to its programmed destination. It does so by navigating between various binary parameters – left-right, high-low, fast-slow – to fly the shortest route from A to B. If side-winds take the aircraft off course, the autopilot takes corrective action to restore the “golden mean” between the binary boundaries set by the navigator.

Finding the golden mean between binary opposites is also at the heart of the I Ching, the ancient “manual” to the Chinese binary system. China’s rulers routinely consulted the I Ching to set the course for the ship of state. And people consult the I Ching before making key decisions by weighing a sequence of binary choices.

No doubt the binary world view of the Chinese will reveal itself in the next (very) big thing in the computer sciences, artificial intelligence. And like the AI community elsewhere, the Chinese will face one of the biggest challenges confronting AI today – harmonizing analog and binary.The binary roots of Chinese culture have been obscured by recent modernization, but they are not lost. Having grown for 3,000 years, they permeate the subconscious of all people raised in a Confucian environment.

Jan Krikke

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Leibniz, Einstein, and China (2021).

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