Computing Power and Communications

What great irony there is that the group of people who used Babbage’s simple calculating machine were, in fact, the first ‘computers’. Some of us might think of the Univac that took up several rooms as the first computer, others the PC/Apple as the first computers, or as noted in last week’s class it was predicted that “In the future, the average computer will weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”

The importance of computing power to communications, while mechanical in nature – pushing binary code through instantaneously, reflects the continuing dimunition of the dimensions of time and space. Computing allows the underlying algorithms of communications to be limited only by the speed of the processor. Verizon is embarked upon a multi-year effort to redo its network completely in fiber-optics. Given the physical properties of glass, the only limitation will be the electronics at transmitting end and, to a lesser, degree the electronics at the termination point. This simply means that in the future where a fiber-optic network exists, light will carry all information from start to finish. It’s clear that between the light spectrum and the speed of light on the side of a communications network, the idea of instant access will become a reality.

I would expect, a la George Lucas’s seminal sci-fi film, THX 1138, holograms and intelligent agents of all manner will be part of our personal space. While that movie reflects a rather dystopian view of the future, it puts across the basic idea that the techies rule society and there are holograms to entertain as well as serve as our assistants.

I am also reminded of an AT&T corporate video made in 1993 that showed home and business settings where instant communication flourished. Among the embellishments. . . An Ameican doctor and her Belgian husband talking over a digital visual connection that simultaneously (and instantly) translated conversations for parents in the U.S. and Belgium, as well as for conversations with a Bhutanese or Nepalese colleague. There also was theater involving a builder/developer and a community activist committed to keeping affordable housing available in an urban renewal project. New designs that ultimately would permit this were effortlessly pulled out of visual databases and displayed on large screens like you find in some of the newer, more sophisticated sports bars these days. . . Of course, the bold new world sat idle for awhile as the real world of $, immature technology and other forms of cash flow distracted the telecoms from building the infrastructure for this new world.

What Would Vannevar Bush Do (or say)? Well, he clearly had the mind to translate contemporary applications and extrapolate their future based on scientific principles – particularly through an understanding photons and their capabilities. My sense is that he would look more closely at the time-space continuum and draw some additional conclusions about technology and the future. Perhaps the Overlords of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 work, “Chilhood’s End” where a superior technological race comes to earth to supervise humanity. Once humanity realizes it is under the power of the Overlords, it loses its aspiration to/for anything and people begin to watch an average of three hours of television a day. Of course, Clarke wrote this at the dawn of the television age when three hours of TV seemed like a rather indulgent pasttime.

But Bush, more the visionary than the pessimist, today would likely see the capabilities of nanotechnology and ‘riding the light’ with communications taking us to new heights, despite the obvious potential for more lethal weapons and inhumane treatment of one another. Even as we consider the radio spectrum or light spectrum as the ultimate in communication capabilities, nanotechnology may offer us devices that we have yet to dream of. . .small implants in the eyes, ears, brain, etc. that allow the brain to move the body to some appointed task – repairing a tear in the femoral artery when help is unavailable, literally creating the necessary components from the body. A little science fictionish, but not without possibility. . . imagine these virtually invisible implants helping you connect with colleagues wherever they are to work on a group project – something well beyond web conferencing, that’s for sure, but maybe not quite telepathy!

Bush might not run as far afield in his thinking, but chances are he’d see the building blocks of a new technology in a light that would give us a sense of the future’s probabilities in communications.


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