Jumat, 19 Desember 2008

Computer failure? Time to put on our thinking caps!

. Jumat, 19 Desember 2008

I went round Bletchley Park the other day -- home of the British war-time code-breakers. Hundreds, thousands of men and women used mathematics, logic and a healthy interest in crosswords to crack German communications, shortening World War II by a couple of years.

Needless to say it made me think of computers. And how they've let us down. Or is it us who have let them down?

One of the code-breakers was Alan Turing, who came up with the idea of a machine that could solve problems. The boffins of Bletchley Park invented machines that trawled through all the possible configurations of the German codes until they found a match.

Lives depended on what they did. And what they succeeded in doing in turn had depended on the hard work of three Polish men who had found a way to crack the original German codes.

These breakthroughs helped lead to the laptops that sit in our bags, the desktops that sit on our desk, and the phones in our pockets. The breakthroughs came about because nothing quite concentrates the mind like fear. In this case, fear of invasion.

Computers -- well, machines that were distant relatives to computers -- helped save the day.

It's quite a sobering thought, as I sit at my laptop playing solitaire, listening to music and reading email. This computer is many millions of times more powerful than the one Alan Turing could even dream of, but here I am, using it, not to shorten wars or save the planet, but to update my blog.

I'm not alone in feeling a bit sheepish. A recent gathering to commemorate the 40th anniversary of personal computing at Stanford University reached similar conclusions. What had happened, attendees told the BBC's Maggie Shiels, to the vision of harnessing computers to help people solve the pressing problems of the world?

A good question. From being a nerdy pastime 20 years ago computers have now taken over pretty much everything we do. Writing letters, phoning Mum, booking a holiday, finding a recipe for Battenberg cake. Paying bills. Checking our bank account. Organizing photos, music, videos. But this is all pretty routine stuff.

Sure we collaborate, but not much: We share photos on Facebook. Edit documents together online. When a doctor uses SMS text message to walk a colleague on another continent through a major operation we go gaga.

But maybe the problem is not so much to do with us, or with the computers, but with the world we find ourselves in. Our computer age is barely 20 years old. That's shorter than the last big downturn, back in the early 1980s. Back then you'd be hard pressed to find a computer for sale in the high street.

In short, the personal computer age has, for most of us, coincided with an age of relative plenty. Most of us haven't exactly been using computers to get us through hard times. We haven't needed to. Computers have been at worst toys, at best productivity devices: making us do things better, faster.

Good, but not exactly visionary.

So now we're hitting those hard times, are we going to see computers fulfill their true potential? There's some evidence we might. In a recent report McKinsey, a consulting firm, looked at innovation during the last really big downturn -- the Great Depression of the 1930s. While a lot of companies stopped investing in R&D -- not least because they had gone bust -- a few didn't.

RCA, for example, shifted its innovation efforts from radio to TV and had started making money again by 1934. DuPont came up with neoprene, considered one of the 20th century's major innovations. And the era even saw some start-ups that went on to great things: Hewlett Packard, for example, and Polaroid.

McKinsey makes the point that companies shouldn't stop investing in innovation even if they're on skid-row. But I'd offer another view: that necessity breeds innovation, whether it's a war or a major recession. Maybe hard times will force us to be more imaginative, more ambitious, more demanding of the computing power at our disposal.

Flickr, Skype and Facebook may be fun, but now it might be time to put on our thinking caps for more worthy applications of Alan Turing's thinking machine.

(c) Loose Wire 2008

Jeremy Wagstaff is a journalist and commentator on technology. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

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