Saturday, February 27, 2010

Just a little bit: The future of computing as foreseen in 1980

This paper was presented to the Club by Robert M. Henderson on Monday evening, March 24, 1980. The portable computing and communications gadget Bob called a "dator," which he predicted for the 1980s, remarkably resembles today's smartphones and netbooks.

Photo: IBM Model 4341 (produced from 1979 to 1986; source: KCG Computer Museum, Japan)

Back in 1946, well within the memory of each of the members of this illustrious group, three scientists from Princeton University published a paper that has had far-reaching effects. The paper was quite innocuously entitled “Preliminary discussions of the logical design of an electric computing instrument.” Their paper contained no new or startling technical information. However, it did very accurately sum up the technical knowledge already available, and presented a well-organized approach to the development of an electrical computing instrument. Many people immediately recognized a large potential for such an instrument, and the race was on to develop computing instruments of various types. And what a race it has been! IBM, Control Data Company, and large other computer manufacturing concerns, as immense as they may be, are only the tip of the iceberg as far as the total impact of computers in our world society.

For openers, let me talk about some order of magnitude concepts. Our most expert and technically competent scientists have concluded that if all of the world’s knowledge from the beginning of time to the year 1950 is considered as one unit, the second unit of knowledge was gained from 1950 to 1975. We are well on our way toward the third unit of knowledge from 1975 to date [1980]. The obvious progression of this tremendous increase in knowledge is well beyond our wildest imaginations. The rate of innovation in both computer design and in technology is so fast that it is impossible to keep up with it. There is no field of endeavor that is not affected and no individuals will escape the far-reaching effect of this technology.

Let’s look at the state of the art as it is today. The military was one of the first users of computers and remains a very large one. Missile guidance, missile launching, aircraft detecting communications, total army control, total logistics are all computer-controlled today. And, with the military, there are many more untold uses than there are published uses of computer control.

The scientific or research field is another large user of computers. Research people have the ability to collect data, evaluate data, and then perform calculations of very sophisticated nature that would be completely impractical if not impossible without computer usage.

The transportation industry has been a big user of computer equipment. We think immediately of airline scheduling, ticketing, and also in the navigational field and in the automatic piloting of aircraft. Bus, rail, truck fleets all are undergoing maximum scrutiny by computer-based techniques to improve scheduling, fuel consumption, and overall improved operation. We need look only as far as our own automobiles to see such things as computer-controlled ignition systems that are used on most of the 1980 model cars. Computerized fuel control for individual vehicles is not far behind.

Agricultural use of computers is gaining wide acceptance. Farm co-ops are advising their members what to plant, when to plant, when to fertilize, when to harvest, and when to market — almost complete control of the agricultural economy. This also includes the raising of beef, sheep, chickens, egg productions and all other types of farm production.

The banking business was an early user of computer equipment. Today their total systems of accounts control, cash control, cash funds transfer and credit card control, are under the management of highly technical computers.

Biological uses include early warning of diseases or disability within embryos. In selective breeding of animals and, I must also add, humans, highly sophisticated computer techniques are being used.

Business functions such as payroll, inventory control, accounts payable, accounts receivable, cash flow control, personnel, production scheduling, purchasing, distribution and word processing all are highly computer-oriented today.

In the communication field, the telephone with its total system, including the land-based and satellite systems, is computer-controlled. Probably the world telephone system per se is the world’s largest computer. Similar computers are used in radio, and television, and also in newspaper publishing where the total system of information gathering down to typesetting and control of the printing presses is becoming computer-controlled.

Computers are playing an increasingly important part in the education of both our children and the adult population. Recent studies showed that on an elementary level, a group of elementary pupils advanced one grade level in reading with approximately 15 hours of a computer program together with an additional seven hours of outside study. Similarly, a jump of one and a half grade levels was made in mathematics with some 20 hours of computer instruction, and 10 hours of outside study. This was accomplished without the use of a teacher — merely the student on a one-to-one basis with the computer plus outside study. The computer system evaluates each student individually, molds the course to the student’s ability, then interacts on a very personal basis with the student. It is only a matter of time before similar systems will be delivering quality education in the home, and in the office, and on the farm.

Another recent innovation in the educational field is the complete programming of various languages so that people can converse with one another through the computer without the use of interpreters. Even difficult languages such as Chinese or Russian are easily accommodated under this new system.

Engineering and architectural design finds many uses for the computer to save time, increase accuracy and to increase the scope of design investigations.

Investment houses obviously have a great use of computers for accounts control, communications, forecasting, and a wide variety of functions.

Insurance businesses, similarly, in addition to the usual account controls, are using computers heavily in their actuarial investigations and rate-setting procedures.

Libraries are becoming more and more automated and computer-oriented.

Medical use of computers is gaining very rapid acceptance. Diagnostic techniques, therapeutic data, all types of medicinal controls and applications are performed through the use of computers.

Many governmental agencies are large users of computer techniques. Pittsfield is being programmed now for complete assessment of all properties, which will greatly assist in the tax evaluation, assessing, and compilation of the tax rate. The IRS has extensive computer capability and more to come. Police departments, fire departments, public health departments, public safety departments — all are using and planning many more uses of computers.

The utilities — gas, electric and water companies — in addition to the business functions they perform with the computer, are also finding ways to better utilize and control their systems.

Another interesting computer technique becoming popular today is in the composing of music. Much of the fundamental music can be programmed into a computer to permit the composer to experiment more widely and rapidly than he could possibly do without the use of the computer.

Industrial companies are becoming more involved with computer techniques. Computers control such things as steel mill, paper mill and textile mill processes, machine tool design, machine tool operation and production scheduling.

One of the very fastest-growing segments of the computer industry is for the home. Today, for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000, you can buy a rather sophisticated computer system that will permit a wide variety of programming for personal needs and for fun and games.

The little pocket calculator that I carry with me regularly, selling for around $15, would have sold for around $20,000 25 years ago. The digital watches that many of us wear have about the same price/time relationship, although it obviously would have been physically impossible to make them this small 25 years ago.

The development, within the last five years, of micro-technology has accelerated the total computer efforts. Specifically, the development of large-scale integrated circuits onto a “chip” has had major impact. Chips can be mass-produced for only a few cents each, and each chip is the equivalent of thousands of components. For example, IBM’s Model 4341 has approximately two million memory characteristic capability, or “bytes” as they are called, stored on a chip about 4 square inches in size — more than 16 times the total information contained in Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 30 volumes.

A reference point: the market for semiconductors, or chips, this year [1980] is forecast at $7.7 billion with production sold out for approximately six months. This is for chips only — none of the mainframes, the circuitry or the computers per se, but merely the chips themselves.

Micro-technology has increased the number of components that can be put on a chip by a factor of 100 within the past five years. This rate of progress, if continued for another 10 years, as seems likely, will result in a 10,000-fold increase in the performance for the same cost. At this rate, one will be able to purchase, for approximately $200, a pocket-sized personal computer that is faster and has more memory than the most powerful computer in the world today.

From a technical standpoint, there are three known directions in which progress remains to be made in micro-technology: First, gate density, or the number of switching elements that can be packed into a given volume of space; second, switching speed, or the number of times a switching operation can occur in a given period of time; and third, transmission speed, or the speed at which signals can travel over the lines between the switching elements.

During the past 20 years, gate density alone has increased by four orders of magnitude, or a factor of 10,000. A change of two orders of magnitude, or a factor of 100, has occurred within the last five years, and two more orders of magnitude can be expected during the next five years. Three more orders of magnitude will bring us to the gate density of the human brain. Four more orders of magnitude will then remain before the theoretical limits of quantum electrodynamics are reached.

About one order of magnitude remains for switching speed and another for transmission speed, which are limited by the speed of light. Therefore, there are about 11 orders of magnitude of potential improvement in throughput density before the natural limits are reached. The last two or three orders of magnitude will probably never be available to us, but improvement in throughput density by eight orders of magnitude, most of it during the next 20 years, will have further revolutionary impact.

By 1985, today’s micro-processor will be succeeded by the nano-processor with a throughput density 1,000 times greater. The pico-processor with a throughput density one million times as great will involve circuits on the molecular level, which probably will have to be grown rather than constructed under external control.

If a pico-processor could be implanted in a person’s skull, interfaced with the brain, that person could have more computer power than exists in the world today and all the stored knowledge of humanity would be accessible as any brain cell. Such a thing would fundamentally change human nature, and it is much closer to realization than bionic limbs, organs or senses.

The computer of the 1980s, which is in reality both a computer and a terminal, will probably be called a “dator.” The dator will be a handheld device not too different in appearance from my present pocket calculator. However, through the dator, a person will have tremendous capability to send, receive, store and process data of all kinds in ways that can now only be dreamed about. This includes input and output of voice, video, music, book and newspaper readings. Further, when plugged into networks the dator will permit communication with any other such devices in any number or combination anywhere within the reach of any form of communication. A single such dator will be able to provide interpersonal communications, conduct financial transactions, report the heart condition of the bearer to the nearest medical facility, and offer a wide variety of audio-visual entertainment. Further, the possessor of the dator will have complete access to all types of engineering design data, records, and, as a matter of fact, would be able to completely locate, almost instantly, any subject in the Library of Congress.

So the great computer technology continues to roll forward. All of us, within the foreseeable future, will have access to unprecedented knowledge capability. Can we and will be put this knowledge capability to good use?

Will there be ultimately that great master computer of infinite capacity and speed? Or, more important, should there be?

Are we losing, or are we about to lose, “the physical and mental control of our society “ (as stated by MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum in a recent address to the World Council of Churches)?

Gentlemen, I leave it to you.


  1. Bob was a visionary, for sure. Thanks for posting these interesting talks. I'm enjoying them.

    Laurie Norton Moffatt

  2. "Bob was..."
    Actually Bob still IS a visionary!