A random thought I had today was about computers. How long has mankind had the notion of a computational machine? Computers have existed since the ancient days, shortly after the beginning of mathmateics. It’s just that back then, computers were people. The word “computer” referred to a human’s job — that of computing large amounts of data. The most famous example was artillery tables, but they also did other work, such as insurance tables. So, the first computer was theorized as a mechanical device back in 1786, in a book published by J.H Muller. This was not science fiction, but a grant proposal — Muller was seeking government funding to work on this idea. At the time, no one thought it was possible, and Muller wasn’t funded.
40 years later, in 1822, Charles Babbage came on the scene with his difference engine. He never made it — it was a set of blueprints that was the first computer. And it worked! Engineers have created the machine from Babbage’s drawings, and gotten a working mechanical computer. Babbage was a good inventor/engineer, but suffered from the engineer’s curse — “It’s not good enough yet!”. He created a working design, but never felt the design was complete enough, and kept altering it. So, Babbage’s difference engine is the first example of bad project management in computer science 🙂
Field-specific computers were invented as early as 1801 — mostly used in factory automation, looms were the first big one. The first modern, electronic computer was invented around 1937. That’s right, 1937, at Iowa State University. That’s right, Iowa. The inventor was a physics professor, and wanted a machine to solve linear equations. Talk about a too-specific invention! So, human beings have been living in the computer age for almost over 2 centuries. Even electronic computers have been around since before WWII!
Yet, we persist in thinking of these things as, “new, high technology.” The computer was too difficult to use for the general public — priot to say, 1960, you had to be an uber-geek to even learn how to use one. A physics professor, or a cutting-edge engineer. Around 1980, you had to be merely smart — a motivated geek. By 1995, you could be an idiot, and use one. Today, my 2 year-old uses a computer. There’s no way he could he could have used the computers of 1955. Heck, even the computers of 1985 were probably beyond him. Sometime around 2005, they became easy enough for a 2 year old to use.
Anyway, computing technology is old. Very old. Older than I. Older than Grandpa. Older than Great Grandpa. Yet, until the last 20 years or so, it was not everywhere. So, we must already have the next century or two worth of technology today, albeit, in primitive and difficult to use forms. I used to believe the 3D printer was the epitome of this trend — I no longer do. 3D printers are merely in the transition zone — between rare and common. Lasers are as well, though further along. But many technologies are in the low stage zone. They exist — we just don’t understand them. In 1800, the idea that people would carry a computer with them for everyday tasks was downright alien. Why would you take a loom with you? And for the love of God, why would you separate the control system from the loom? And if you did both, why would you use it to announce to the world, in 127 characters or less, that you miss your dog?
I, as a product of my time, cannot fathom how the future will alter and distribute existing technologies. Maybe the GC-MS, used to identify chemicals, will be the technology? Robotics cooks, armed with GC-MS will use them to sniff the flavoring of foods. Or maybe it’ll just be an ordinary sensor — like a thermometer is today. It’ll be in your car( or transport device ). “Hmm — It’s 44 degrees out with hints of aromatics in the air. I should use my asthma inhaler before I get out of the car…” More likely, these technologies are things I have never even heard of, and do not know they exist. I may use their products today — I’m sure many people used the products of computerized Looms in the 1800s. But I would never think to adapt the loom to send tweets about my dog… A true futurist will seem to be a nutter… Perhaps this is why Prophets lived in caves?