Is code the language that really runs the world?

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1. Living in a digital world

In the last three decades, computers have changed our world beyond recognition. And underpinning that technological revolution has been the language that computers speak – the language of computer code.

Code does more than just power our emails or the latest apps on our smartphones. Even a simple shopping trip now relies on code to make it run smoothly.

As with any foreign language, code is pretty much incomprehensible to those of us who don't know it. But with a few basic concepts, we can understand more about how it runs so much of the world around us.

2. The language of computers

Like human languages, computer code has a structure, vocabulary and rules that make it work.

3. Giving objects a digital identity

Computers don’t talk about objects with words, the way we do. Instead, the basic building blocks of the language of computer code are just two numbers – zero and one.

Computers still need to be able to distinguish between millions of different objects and exchange information about them with each other.

Barcodes help bridge this gap – they give physical objects a digital identity.

In a standard barcode, white bars are read as 0s and black bars as 1s. A computer interprets the series of 0s and 1s as a ‘digital noun' that identifies an object, so it can find out information like stock details and cost.

And digital nouns also allow computers to do far more complex things.

4. Secret language of devices

Computers use digital identities to recognise each other and to exchange information. Sending a series of secret messages to your car from its key fob reveals the ingenious code that locks the door.

5. Coding your way across the road

Code lets computers make decisions and control the world around us. Take traffic lights, which can respond to how many cars are on the road, or a pedestrian pressing a button at a crossing. Click the hand below to take control of a traffic system.

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By creating some code based on simple rules, you can write instructions to control any computer system – even huge, complex systems that unite humans across the globe.

6. Powering human conversation with code

Today, computer code lets humans communicate with each other on a global scale. From the world wide web, search engines pull out the information we want in an instant. Slow the process down, and you can see how it happens – watch the video below.

7. Which was the first to be run by code?

Digital code now runs every aspect of our modern lives. But which innovation was the first to be introduced?

Retail barcodes

Image: BBC

Wrong

Retail barcodes

1974

A 10-pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum was the first shop product to have its barcode scanned at checkout. It was sold for 67 cents in Ohio in 1974.

Remote car locking

Image: Getty Images

Wrong

Remote car locking

1982

The first keyless entry systems appeared on French-made Renault models of the early 1980s. They improved in design and affordability over the next decade.

Computerised traffic lights

Image: BBC

Correct

Computerised traffic lights

1963

Early traffic lights were operated by policemen. With rising road use, the world’s first computerised traffic control system was installed in Toronto in 1963.

Internet search engines

Image: Getty Images

Wrong

Internet search engines

1990

Archie, the first internet search engine, was created in 1990 by a university student in Montreal. With limited space, it hosted an index of directory listings.