Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Computing today and the challenges of tomorrow

When I was growing up, computers were being invented. I recall my brother getting his first calculator, which was made by Casio and could add, subtract, multiply and divide to fifteen decimal places.  It was a large fat device and the buttons were very dodgy and kept misreading the touches.  It was fantastic for showing off with, it could do pi (π) to fifteen places, which was the sort of thing that people in the playground would think of as cool, in some schools.

The Casio Calculator

My first experience with a computer was at university, where we had to log in via DOS and use DOS commands to do simple functions.  These were basically used as calculators for large sums.  I will always recall the dread of the “\CD” “C>” prompts, which at the time seemed be some sort of Masonic code to people like me who were more concerned with humans that computers.  The computer screen was a cathode ray tube and provided a black screen with small white/grey writing on it when you typed.  I also recall some using early rudimentary word processing packages that allowed you to type something and then print it. 

Floppy disks were huge and bigger than the 7” single we all possessed.  They were fragile and easily broken or corrupted. They fitted snugly into the post box like slot in the computer and made various crunching noises as their whirred around.  This means I have witnessed and used a range of floppy discs from the 8-inch, through the 5 14-inch, to the 3 12-inch floppy disks and now the flash drives and other media formats.

Floppy Disks

The computer screens changed from black and white to green and black and then eventually black and white pictures were produced which were followed shortly after by their colour compatriots.

The computer itself changed colour from grey to black to white and now can be obtained in many colours.   The once huge computer, which was a mainframe, changed to being portable and then a laptop, netbook and currently a tablet computer or phablet.   

The internet when it arrived was obtained via a wire and called the Ethernet; this then became a 14-54kb mobile data/fax modem that everyone at the time used. This allowed pages to load before your eyes. Line by line, the page would slowly come into view.  Web pages were designed to be small and light, so they could load quickly.   I recall when I started doing my first web pages back in the 1980’s, I would send the URL of the page to a site that would tell me how fast the page would load.   This also meant that a good web page would load fast and have few pictures on the page. The current wireless modems and superfast 3g or 4g speeds of today not only download web pages in fractions of a second. Wireless connectivity has freed the computer from the ties of cables and extensive battery life allows greater flexibility.

A network terminal with two floppy disk slots

Today, your computer can download movies or play games wirelessly anywhere where there is a wireless network point.

What does the future hold for computing?

It seems there are some interesting challenges ahead. The ubiquitous computer provides the ability to embed computing into everyday objects, so the social world can be more accessible. The use of voice recognition provides greater flexibility for devices, but no one wants to constantly chattering to the ether. Similarly, virtual technology and 3/4g provide excellent opportunities for communication and gaming, but virtualisation has it's own limits. There is a optimum for sized devices and although different devices might have different size requirements, for different functions but there will be an optimum size derived eventually. Ideally, on one the one hand it would be ideal to have technology that reads thought commands, this could also be extremely problematic or even dangerous in certain circumstances.

So the challenges are becoming apparent, they centre on improving technology from a person- centred perspective. The challenge is to find out what people want and need from technology, and delivering just that, no less and no more.  

I would also suggest that part of this challenge is to provide an off switch so the always on society can also be the sometimes off.  Privacy and security are to be more of an issue the more things are networked together.

As we invest more of our future technology, reliability and survivability are also critical elements. Technology should not fail and if it does systems should be in place to ensure that data survives.

Some of today's wireless technologies

Battery power is also the issue for the mobile user, especially owners of smartphones and tablet computers who are forced to charge their devices daily. We are increasingly becoming tied to power points to charge our phones, laptops, tablets, MP3 players etc.

As technology becomes more embedded in everyday objects we will also see the increase in need for more reliable battery power or the ability to recharge as the battery is used.

The future is a mass of possibilities, like the missions to space, the Universe seemed within our grasp, and technology offers the potential for considerable good as well as possible doomsday scenarios. We need to encourage the good and hinder the bad.

Most importantly it is important to recognise that the current improvements made by technology are temporary and the equilibrium or normality of service will be reinstated eventually. This will inevitably involve a considerable amount of technology, but this should be technology that supports us, not technology that we are supporting.

Controlling technology or being controlled?