HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

February 19, 2007, Herald Journal

What will computer technology look like in 50 years?


My first thought was that the question seems unanswerable – I have enough trouble figuring out if it has been three months or 3,000 miles until I can change the oil in my car . . . so I needed to pause and consider what 50 years into the future might look like.

I was asked this question in an e-mail from one of my faithful readers.

As we wonder about the future of computing technology in the year 2057, I think it might be interesting for us to first go back into the past . . . back 50 years to see some of the computer technology used at that time. I will also comment on how we are using our computers and the technology of today.

Here is an interesting quote from a person expressing their opinion about using computers to process data:

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” “The Editor in Charge” of business books for Prentice Hall made this quote in 1957.

In January of 1957, International Business Machines Corporation – better know as IBM, announced a new electronic data processing machine called the “Type 709” which later became Model 7090.”

September of 1957 also saw IBM complete the 705 model III, this was IBM’s last large-scale vacuum tube machine. It also incorporated a magnetic core memory, which could hold 20,000 characters, or 20K. The programming language was called “Fortran” and it was released in 1957.

IBM also created the first digital hard disk drive. The 24-inch IBM 350-1 began shipping in late 1956 and early 1957. This computer hard drive housed (50) 24-inch disks, (the photo looks like a 5 foot stack of 45 rpm records) had an access time of 600 milliseconds and a capacity of “5.0 Megabytes” which to me seems impressive for 1957.

In December of 1957, IBM also introduced the first commercial calculator using all solid-state transistor circuitry. In the late 1970’s we put away the slide-rule (what is that, grandpa?) and started to use calculators. The first calculator I used was in 1977 and was made by Texas Instruments. They called it the TI-30; you can see a photo of it at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TI-30.

The computers in 1957 were still very large, dissipated a lot of heat and took up room -- sometimes one or two rooms, I believe.

Outer Space became something that would attract the interest (and fear) of the world, when on October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a basketball, weighed only 183 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth.

In 1950, Isaac Asimov published his famous book called “I-Robot” that takes place in 2057. It seems that Asimov envisions our society dominated by robots.

In 2057, a “nano-tube” ribbon-like technology may create a permanent tethered “space elevator” which will “lift” payloads into earth orbit without using rockets.

In 2057, we might be wearing “high-tech” “micro-encapsulation” clothing. One feature will allow it to send our vital signs over the Internet to our doctor. It will also incorporate the “intelligence” to send for help if we are injured. This “high-tech” clothing may even administer life-saving drugs.

A “Computerized Video Display” T-shirt in 2057 will have a video display panel engrained within the cloth. Instead of an imprinted photograph or logo, you could walk around showing your favorite video clips or get paid to advertise a product.

Today we can send photographs taken with our cell phones to any Internet connected device in the world.

We check the traffic and weather before we go to work or vacation by means of web-cams and real-time weather websites.

Today we can upload our business and personal videos to online web servers like “Youtube.com.”

We write “online-diaries” known as “blogs” on the Internet.

Today you can “earn your degree” or learn new skills by taking online learning classes and tutorials.

We can watch live broadcast television programs on the Internet.

Today we can listen to radio stations from across the world over the Internet.

Many of today’s telephone calls are being processed by new Internet Protocol (IP) “packet-switching” computer systems that are networked over the Internet.

We can pay our bills online.

There many other examples of how we are using today’s computers and technologies.

My hope is that our children and grandchildren using today’s computers and technologies, will find that it has enriched their ability to live a better quality life – and that it gives them the tools they need to succeed in their daily professions – today . . . and into the future.

In 2057, the new technologies of that year will appear to be like magic to us today – but will seem quite normal to our children’s children.

So, what will the next 50 years bring?

As the great scientist, Arthur C. Clarke said in his famous 1961 book ‘Profiles of The Future’, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I have no doubt that the advancements made in computers and technology of 2057 will indeed seem like “magic” to those of us living in the here and now of 2007.