Contrarian Histories as a Guide of the Future

It is often said that history is written by the winners. Ignoring or losing the view of the vanquished can distort our perceptions. This can then mislead us about where we are today and where we might get on what timescale.

If my last piece came from unpacking to move home, this arose from filling my bookshelves at the other end. By accident I found two books put together for the first time. The first is Ted Nelson's "Geeks Bearing Gifts" and the second Bob Seidensticker's "Future Hype". They are both enjoyable reads and puncture the hype that often surrounds IT each in a very distinctive style. Neither of these gentlemen is a loser, far from it. I find their insights illuminating about the way forward.

The history often around IT is about exponential change and unprecedented capabilities. What this tends to ignore are the many dead ends and failures to thrive along the way.

It made me think of my first visit to an IT R&D facility back in September 1979.

One of the demonstrations I saw on that visit was a primitive voice input system. Being of the age I am, HAL 9000 in Kubrick’s 2001 made a big impact on my teenage views. I asked whether the research they were conducting would make HAL a reality by 2001. The response was optimistic, suggesting that costs of hardware and software developments would make HAL's voice capabilities real a decade ahead of 2001. ( I won’t consider the visual capabilities, such as lip reading that HAL displayed)

This optimism seemed real on my first visit with a customer to an R&D facility in Japan in 1986. Here I saw a prototype of an interface where you spoke in Japanese and it output in English. While limited in scope it was impressive nonetheless.

Now in 2009 we have some good software packages for voice, but problems of accent and range have not been cracked at the rate enthusiasts imagined.

Looking back on it, the optimism came from a belief that increasingly cheap commodity hardware would be enough. That has not proven to be the case. Moore’s law is not enough!

So, when do we think HAL's voice and visual skills will become real? 5 years? 10? 50?

My guess is that the era around 1980-2005 was dominated by cost reductions in hardware and increased capacity enabling developments in software. I think we’ve run that course.

To deliver on HAL, we need new algorithms, new mathematics and new science which will in turn deliver in time new technologies. So while we can exploit the technologies of today for a while yet, new "classes" of IT applications need new thinking. That takes time. Of course, the Web came from science as a by product of particle physics research.

Where will the next breakthroughs come from? I suspect that neuroscience, computational biology and quantum physics will hold the important keys to the future of IT.

The timescale for the application of fundamental science can be much longer than enthusiasts believe. So will the pace of IT change slow down? Or, if you read Ted and Bob's books, have we been overclaiming for years?

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

See all posts by Chris Yapp

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