Why is binary so important to computers?

Awhile ago an acquaintance came to me and said,”Hey, you’re a computer guy. Can you tell me why binary is important to computers in a way that won’t put me to sleep?”

Feeling somewhat confident, I told her that I could….and here’s my explanation:

Regardless of how it looks to you…words, text, images, etc, to a computer its all 1’s and 0’s. That’s because computers determine what to do based on what path an electronic pulse takes through its chips. The paths are controlled by microscopic gates. If the computer receives a 1 in a certain position, it means that the corresponding gate is open, a 0, and its closed.

She nodded (not yet sleepy) and followed up with, “How does it know when one of these gates should be opened or closed?“.

That’s more complicated. There are several layers of programs on your computer that translate what you see and do to and from binary.

She nodded again, and responded, “Programs?”

Yup…by that I mean things like the operating system (which could be Linux, Windows, etc.), which tells the programs that you use how to interact with the computer.

The operating system will communicate with the “Kernel”, which will take what the operating system does, and turn it into binary (and vice versa).

At this point, I wandered off quietly as not to wake her…

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