Computer Science vs. the Adversary

In computer science, there is a common mode of thinking: you are trying to solve a problem and your adversary, virtually interacting through your computer, does everything in their power to stop you.

This isn’t the problem-solving approach they taught us in physics or marketing, so I always found it a little odd when I encountered it. Why would I have an evil adversary inside the computer? Can’t I just write code that tries to solve a problem in the most efficient way possible? How does having an adversary help me do that?

I’m still not sure whether to find that mode of problem-solving helpful, but at least I know now where the idea came from.

Computer science was born out of World War II cryptography efforts. In cryptography, your aim is design algorithms that can’t be broken by some adversary or, alternatively, to break an algorithm designed by someone trying to make your job as hard as possible.

In short, in cryptography, there really are adversaries.

This makes the association of “The Adversary” with computer-based thinking even more intriguing – during World War II, it wasn’t just impressive algorithms, but the real complexity of language that created the most “unbreakable” codes.

On the front lines of WWII were “code talkers” – bilingual speakers of English and native American languages. Most notably, Navajo code talkers played a critical role in cryptography during the war. Each English letter was associated with an English word, and that English word was translated into Navajo, and many common expressions were given shorter nicknames. Additionally, Navajo has complex tonal qualities and syntax structures, making the language “unintelligible all other tribes and all other people,” according to one Major General Clayton B. Vogel.

Importantly, one of the reasons Navajo was particularly good for cryptography was that, at the time, it only existed as a spoken language. This was because, as Vogel pointed out, “Navaho [sic] is the largest tribe, but the lowest in literacy.”

These Navajo, many forced into boarding schools where they had been forbidden to speak their native language, then used their language as a crucial tool in American war and defense efforts.

Declassified in 1968, the Navajo code remains the only oral military code that has never been broken.


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