SEMCO: The Future Is Now

(Note from the Editors of Internet Advisor:  We publish this address delivered at the 35th anniversary gathering of SEMCO on 4/10/11 because of some interesting perspectives both on the past and the future of computing.)

The Future is Now!

By Warner Mach

I would like to address six examples to show why the “future is now” in the rapidly developing computer world. SEMCO started in 1976. These are some of the reasons why what was science-fiction in 1976 is reality in 2011. Sometimes we are imbedded in the culture and don’t see the tremendous changes that have occurred:

(1)  Overcoming limitations: We no longer deal with the limitations such as computer speed, limited memory, and limited external storage.

(2)  Telecommunications: The universal Internet as a solution to the communications problem.

(3)  Virtual Worlds: The world of Second Life and multi-user games.

(4)  The “Watson” supercomputer that beat the human Jeopardy contestants.

(5)  Simulation of brain neutrons: Henry Markram and the “Blue Brain” project.

(6)  Seymour Wolfram and a “New Kind of Science.”

So imagine, if you will, that you have stepped out of the time machine from 1976.

(1) Overcoming Limitations:

I think that, for people who have been in the computer field since the early days, I only have to remind them of the early limitations:

* Computer Speed: When you buy a computer today there is much less talk of CPU speed because, for normal purposes, the computer speed is adequate, even if you get a “netbook.” But, early on, we used to follow chip speed closely. It determined what we could do.

* Memory: As I researched some of the early literature I re-remembered some of the concerns in the “old days.” A big issue was the 640K memory limitation that was a consequence of 16-bit memory Addressing. This limitation was overcome by elaborate schemes such as “extended memory” and “expanded memory.” Also, of course, physical memory was expensive in the early days, so even if we could address it we might have a problem buying it.

* External Storage: Some of the early machines used the “paper tape” facility of the Teletype machine to store BASIC programs. Some of the machines used cassette tape recorders to store programs and data … Later there were various sizes of “floppy disks” –8” and 5.25” and 3.5” … And, finally, hard drives. There were size limitations on early hard drive storage. Now we can store terebytes of data … Of course with the original Altair, a good computer person would memorize the boot sequence, which was entered by hand. So the human memory would serve as external storage.

* Size: Without saying too much about the topic, we should at least note that the size and bulk of the early computers was a problem for portability. Now we are down to netbooks and tablets and smartphones. Size reduction, in itself, makes new things possible.

* Operating System: You can now choose between Windows, Linux, and Mac OS as your operating system of choice. There are clear partisans for each of these systems, but certainly any one of them are a great improvement over a BASIC-based operating system that is run using the command line as input.

So these are some of the concerns with which we no longer deal.

(2) Telecommunications

A very major advancement was the development of the Internet and the use of the Internet browser.

I really think that perhaps no one would have anticipated, in 1976, how this has developed. Our science-fiction dreams in the 70’s and 80’s revolved around faster modem speeds over landline telephones; not a ubiquitous network using WiFi, and now the use of a “browser.”

In the early days we used the “bulletin board system.” I know that Bob Clyne had an elaborate system in Royal Oak and I myself ran a second phone line to the house and had a small BBS.

The big problem with the BBS system was long-distance phone charges to go to a popular spot. In order to partially overcome this the “Fido” system was developed that would store messages and data and forward them at night when phone rates were lower.

In addition to the Internet itself, which got away from the landline-based system, there is the vast improvement in transmission speeds, which makes possible graphics and video in addition to text.

(3) Virtual Worlds

I am active in “Second Life.” I send my avatar, Warner Magneto, out to meet with people from all over the world in a virtual environment.

Even more popular than Second Life are the various multi-user games that let folks vent their aggression on friends and strangers. Games are a study in themselves, but to be in one of these virtual worlds seems to be a very real experience. People seem to easily adapt to a virtual existence.

Certainly entering a virtual world is a science-fiction experience. Although my pixilated avatar is interacting with your pixilated avatar, at the far end there are real people.

— Things in the Early Stages

As you emerge from the 1976 time machine, I would like to tell you about a few computer-related things that are current, but are in the early stages; so the final consequences are not yet apparent:

(4) Watson

We should mention that this year is SEMCO’s 35th anniversary and it is IBM’s 100th anniversary. Full disclosure: I spent my career working with IBM mainframes and I own IBM stock.

In spite of predictions, a few years ago, of IBM’s demise, the company continues to adapt and thrive, and recently showed off the “Watson” supercomputer which beat the top human “Jeopardy” contestant at that game.

The significance was less in the winning of the game than in demonstrating that the computer could deal with complicated language input and could at least give the appearance of “understanding” in order to sift through vast amounts of data to come up with answers.

The problem that computer scientists are now addressing is that there is too much “data” and not enough “information.” Microsoft has highlighted this fact in their ads for the “Bing” search engine. These ads show folks going off in wild information tangents when a simple question is asked. In these ads they seem to be saying that Google is, in effect, too good.

IBM is now in partnership with universities and companies in efforts to turn huge amounts of data in engineering and physics and medicine into useful information. Perhaps at some point we, as individuals, will be able to reach into the “cloud” and take advantage of this.

— Things in the Early Stages and Possibly Controversial

(5) Blue Brain

I recommend that you look at the TED lecture given by Henry Markram, Director of the Blue Brain project. The Blue Brain project is, as you might guess, a simulation run on an IBM super computer. This group is attempting to simulate the neurons in the human brain and is actually addressing the old philosophical question of how much of “reality” is out there in the world and how much is generated by the brain.

Dr. Markram maintains that over 90% of our perceptions are generated by the brain and that we travel in a “reality bubble” that is created by the brain.

The real nature of real reality is what physics and science is all about, so who knows what may emerge from this study(?).

(6) Seymour Wolfram

Seymour Wolfram is the man behind the “Mathematica” software that is widely used in Universities. He is also behind the “Wolfram Alpha” search engine.

Dr. Wolfram is unquestionably a genius, and a few years ago he wrote a book titled, “A New Kind of Science.”

The theme of the book is that what science should concern itself with is algorithms rather than equations; that the universe itself is driven by an algorithm of some sort. The way that you demonstrate your understanding of reality is that you start with simple elements and an appropriate algorithm and demonstrate that your conception matches real phenomenon in the world.

Conclusions:

Just a quick word about money and computers: Some of the motivation behind computer development has been making a lot of money and some of the motivation has been an exploration of “what is possible.” Sometimes these two things work together and sometimes they do not. The “dot com” bubble was an example of  a capital implosion – But the exploration of “what is possible” goes on – As with the social networks and the development of smartphones, etc. I think that computer clubs, like SEMCO, are driven by the exploration of “what is possible.”

Here we are in 2011. In some respects we see that computers have produced amazing results, but there are some down sides. Some possible down sides are more devastating weapons, increased surveillance, and runaway stock markets.

Whether history says that the net result is good or bad is yet to be determined but, in any case, they have made things a good deal more interesting.

References:

(1) The computer history museum is the place to learn about early computer history. <http://www.computerhistory.org/>

(2) Retro computing: Buy a new-old Commodore-64 and other legacy emulated machines:

<http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2011/04/commodore-64-goes-on-sale-amiga-vic-20-coming-soon/>

<http://www.commodoreusa.net/CUSA_C64Select.aspx>

<http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/04/ben-heck-goes-b/>

(3) Following Wikipedia articles talk about DOS memory issues:

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expanded_memory>

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_memory>

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DOS_memory_management>

(4) To become part of Second Life, go here:

<http://secondlife.com/>

(5) The Henry Markam TED talk (video) is here:

<http://www.ted.com/talks/henry_markram_supercomputing_the_brain_s_secrets.html>

(6) To read the giant “New Kind of Science” book go here:

<http://www.wolframscience.com/nksonline/toc.html>

(7) Seymour Wolfram explains “New Kind of Science” in this video:

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eC14GonZnU>

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