Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Lesson 12, part II: The future

Here are some quotes about the future, taken from the past.

  • "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."
  • "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication."
  • "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
  • "Everything that can be invented has been invented."
  • "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
  • "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
  • "640K ought to be enough for anybody."
  • "…data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."

The answers are at the bottom, although you'll have to work out the order yourself.

The point is that predicting the future is very difficult, even for very clever people.

In 1943 there didn't seem to be a very big market for computers. A few years later the transistor was invented, and in the 1960s somebody worked out how to put more than one onto the same chip of silicon. Moore's law started to take effect then, leading to a doubling of the number of transistors on an integrated circuit every couple of years, which goes on to this day. These kinds of exponential growth often have finite limits. We hope that fossil fuel consumption and carbon emission will not continue on its exponential growth, and if the amount of installed solar power continues growing exponentially it will reach the total solar irradiation on the entire surface of the earth. It has been suggested that Moore's law will stop working when the size of transistors hits the size of molecules and atoms, but recent research into quantum computing may allow the trend to continue.

Practically speaking, Moore's law tells us that if we wait another couple of years, the cost of an electronic device will halve, or the capacity will double. This could mean that you should wait a couple of years, or it may mean that you should just go ahead and get what you can now, since you would be waiting another couple of years for ever.

LEDs are one example of a future technology that has come into the present in the past few years. Back in the seventies, a "zero heating building" could have reasonably used 100 watt lightbulbs in each room, taking lighting as a given, and the excess heat of incandescent bulbs as free heat. Haitz's law is the version of Moore's law that applies to LEDs, and it means that LEDs are now cheaper than other forms of light as they will use less energy and last longer. They are also small, and don't radiate heat or attract insects so they are good in the summer.

Conventional disadvantages are the inability to dim, limited colours and high cost, all of which are fading away.

The future is bright, but only partly predictable. There is also a dark side.

Quotes by:
Western Union internal memo, 1876.
Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.
Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899.
H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.
Tom Watson, IBM chairman, 1943
Editor in charge of business books, Prentice Hall, 1957
Ken Olson, Digital Equipment Corp. president, chairman and founder, 1977
Bill Gates, 1981