Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Time for Another Revolution?

In the middle of a year long primary it is sometimes hard to realize that there are other things going on in the world.

And yet one has to admit to him or herself that politicians never invented anything or contributed very much to innovation and progress—except for perhaps our Founding Fathers.

Sometimes, you just need a wake up call.

I found mine in the April 13th edition of Outlook.

Let me explain: I don’t happen to be a real Washington Post fan because more often than not, the articles seem like they have been so homogenized by the pro-conservative editorial staff, that they are hardly attention-grabbing.

You don’t find much worth taking home out of the Post so I read it for travel, styles, the book review and the Sunday magazine and toss most of the rest of it away.

But Outlook on the 13th paid a tribute to science and they talked about innovation and how you don’t know it when it’s right in front of your face.

One of the articles is by Ray Kurzweil who may have influenced a generation of great thinkers.

He was talking about how fortunate he was to go to MIT in 1965 where they actually had a computer in a special room and all the students used it.

I know what he was talking about.

I had studied computers at Queens College some ten years before and there was no computer, only a theoretical one that we carried around in our heads and that we developed processes for, mathematical systems and taught it how to operate.

Fortunately, we had some top dawgs in the program including the man who helped launch Polaris, one of the first applications for a computer system and one of Einstein’s closest associates as Head of the Department so there seemed to be a natural push towards futurism..

At graduate school at NYU’s Dept of Mathematics, they had a computer but I never saw it. And we did our statistical series with pencil and paper.

Later on, I went to work for Honeywell. Honeywell sold MIT it’s most advanced system and I was part of the back-up for that system. It was our 1800 Series which meant it could use “simultaneity’ and “parallel processing” to share the central processor on eighteen separate programs that ran simultaneously. We never found too many programmers who could actually conjure up eighteen programs to run simultaneously but it seemed like it was a very futuristic thing to do if we had to.

In those days, the killer aps were pedestrian accounting routines and few people outside accounting actually ever used a computer. At that time, we had moved beyond IBM with tape drives that were much more efficient than punch cards.

At the time, a full three years before Kurzweil came onboard, Honeywell was working with MIT scientists to create artificial reality and do exotic things like analyzing disease from eye analysis and stuff like that.

At the time, we were IBM’s main competition.

IBM was so full of itself at the time, that nobody could tell them anything. They were irrevocably trapped inside their own bubble and it was to limit them in ways they couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I suspect that living off the past was one of the primary reasons all “break-throughs” tend to come from outside an industry.

It was certainly true when IBM did two things to limit its growth. It went outside for microcircuitry and chips and for an operating system.

There were no flies on Intel or the fledgling Bill Gates who was working out of his garage at the time. At the time, I thought that Intel’s chief was the brightest guy I ever heard of. And time proved me out.

They seized the initiative and the computer world changed big-time.

Another first that was not recognized was what ARPA conceived of with its ARPA net, a method for bringing all of our college computer technology together in the event of an emergency. Yes, Al Gore did have a lot to do with getting the budget approved and the idea communicated.

Originally, a major demonstration was attempted for all of the communications industry to show them how various computers could be linked into a network using English language text instead of codes.

This was a breakthrough since prior to that time, most communications was in octal or binary codes.

The communication practically laughed the computer people out of the room.

It was their biggest mistake and in the late 80’s contributed to what was later to become the Internet.

In short, they were the last ones to benefit from this quantum leap in technology.

The third major change in computers came around when Xerox in its Palo Alto plant developed a way to project interactive images to represent content and a way of communicating called the “graphical interface.”. The suits in Rochester, the home office, never got it.

And they lost out when Bill Gates and the founder of Apple arranged a free tour of the Palo Alto installation. In those days, there was such things as “shareware” and “free ware” where scientists and those who tinker shared their findings with each other. That’s why most of the break throughs came out of California and Stanford because Stanford was where many of the young fertile minds that would change this industry were shaped.

But Gates and Jobs realized what they were seeing and the industry would never be the same. Just a few short years later, Apple presented its killer ap, the ability to do graphics from beginning to print-out. And a revolution was born.

These three events uprooted the computer industry and turned it on its head; yet, life went on. IBM until much later missed out on what was happening around it.

Today, Intel, the people who manufactured the integrated circuits, or chips, for IBM is bigger than IBM and their chips are used in everything. Microsoft is one of the top companies in the world and Xerox is an also-ran who ran out of brains and innovation decades ago.

That’s the way it goes.

You always have to think outside of the box and be willing to take the first steps.

These articles in Outlook take the next step and talk about the future of genetics and medicine, nanotechnology and the prospect that these changes are probably staring us in the face but we don’t recognize them as yet. But that the future is just a step away if we choose to pursue it. A good thought during a depressing primary season.

Worth reading if you’ve got the issue.

Les Aaron
The Armchair Curmudgeon…

Politics Blog Top Sites


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home