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In general, binary describes anything that is made up of two things or parts. In the context of information technology, binary is a base-2 numbering system that uses the numerals 0 and 1 for counting. It is used by digital computers to perform calculations from the simplest to the most complex.
As the essayist Brian Hayes explained in a column in the American Scientist magazine, “People count by tens and machines count by twos.” Digital computers have used the binary numbering scheme since the development of electronic computing in the mid-20th century. While other systems have been attempted, such as base-3 or base-10, binary is ubiquitous in the computing field.
Alan Turing’s thought experiment, the Turing Machine, showed that any computable function could be calculated in binary. Today’s computers, with their streaming sets of ones and zeros, operate exactly like a Turing Machine. It is binary logic that is at the core of virtually all the computing devices in the world.
But not all computers are digital, and digital computers can theoretically use something other than binary. A ternary (base-3) computer was developed in the 1950s in Russia, and in the 1840s the Analytical Engine was designed using decimal (base-10). Future computers are expected to use quantum computing concepts, which will likely take computing far beyond its current capabilities.