Every now and then even brilliant people or people who think themselves brilliant say things they wish they could take back. Unfortunately, once spoken, these nuggets of wisdom live in infamy, which you may know, is a very long time. And dumb comments, unlike wine or cheese, do not age well. Here’s proof.
“Get out of here! You stink and we’re not going to buy your product!” were the last words Steve Jobs heard as he left the office of Atari’s President where he had gone hoping to sell the rights to the new personal computer he had helped develop. Despite the rejection, Jobs did OK. So did his company, Apple. Atari? RIP.
Who knows how things would have turned out had Jobs cut a deal? But who has time to think about it? We’re too busy working or playing on our computers which now occupy 84 percent of U.S. homes.
Once science fiction, now science fact, computers have become nearly indispensable. They allow us instantaneous communication on an almost global scale. Computers provide answers on questions from astronomy to zoology in a single heartbeat. We shop, play, research and, yes, also work on them. And this technological tsunami has washed over us in less than a generation.
“I wasn’t asking for much,” says Metropolitan State University’s Dr. Edgar Maldonado, of the first computer he ever touched as a boy in his native Venezuela. “Maybe a little color would have been good.” Unlike today’s computers that show the most realistic images in amazingly high resolution, the screen on his – actually, a relative’s – IBM XT, says Maldonado, was a monochromatic orange.
Luckily for a teenaged boy, time was not an issue. Otherwise, he might have grown frustrated having to punch in commands with the keyboard’s ‘control,’ ‘alt,’ and ‘shift’ keys. His first computer experience might have turned off a less curious child. His introduction to the computer age came a few years before the introduction of the mouse. In fact, a mouse, a common computer tool today, was as much a pipe dream then as a light bulb or wheel might have been to early man. But that was then.
“What is amazing,” says Maldonado in assessing how far we have come, “is that today you have all human knowledge in front of you at any time.” Today, says the Venezuelan expat, “you can look for any quote, any equation or a video with someone explaining that equation.” In other words, man now has a tool that, in an earlier time, was pure fantasy.
“The computer power that we used to put a man on the moon,” says Dr. Ivan Cornejo, a Colorado School of Mines Material Sciences professor and co-inventor of Gorilla Glass – the glass on cell phones and flat screen TVs – “is not even matched in the phone that you’re calling me on.”
Indeed. Once a technological genie is out of the bottle, its evolution is meteoric.
“Look at the invention of the transistor and how long it took to become a radio,” he says. “Those times are really long. But you look at how long it took for Facebook to reach a million customers; it took a week.”
For scientists, including Cornejo, research was dictated by things pretty much out of one’s control. If, for example, you were waiting in Colorado for data from almost any other place, you were at the whim of the mail, FedEx or any other carrier. Any way you cut it, you waited. And waited some more.
“Back then you subscribed to a few journals and waited every month for them to come to your office.” Today, with a computer, there’s essentially no waiting. And no shortage of options or information.
The things we do today on computers would have been magic in almost any previous era. Desktop publishing – you can publish your own book or magazine. Medicine. You can visit a website and diagnose your symptoms. Or, you can Skype with your own doctor and have a real-time question-answer session. You can do banking, go to college, gamble, watch movies, date, check your heartbeat, count your steps; there is no shortage of options. If you choose, you can also idle away the hours watching cat videos. And you can do it all on your computer, your cell phone, tablet or, now, on your Smartwatch.
For Denver graphic artist Ellen Stark, the evolution of the computer changed everything about her business. Twenty years ago, she remembers, in order to put out a brochure or create an ad pitch, it took a team – copywriters, printers, photographers and design people.
“Everyone had a job,” recalls Stark, who now runs her own graphic design firm. The tools needed to put together what she assembles today as a one-woman operation – the straight edges, X-acto knives, cameras and T-Squares – are by today’s standards, both superfluous and primitive. But back then, they were also essential. Then something happened.
Her then boss invested in a computer – a single computer for the entire office. “It was amazing,” she recalls. “But it cost $10,000.” It was an enormous sum but it revolutionized the industry.
Today, costs have plunged to far more affordable levels while at the same time computer capabilities have taken off at near light speed. Today, a single computer allows one person to do the job of what once took an entire team.
So, have we topped out with computers? Hardly, say Maldonado and Cornejo. In the not-too-distant future, computers, they believe, will become even more versatile, lighter, smaller, more powerful and without things we might now think essential in computing. The mouse or even the keyboard could go the way of the floppy disc. Some futurists go so far as to predict that someday soon, commands we give on a keyboard today will in the future be given mentally.
Already, computers are allowing people to move limbs that previously were lifeless. Computer technology has introduced the driverless car and work is underway to power it with clean, non-carbon-based fuels.
Three-D (3-D) computers are already creating ears, digits and, some predict, within five years, even more complex body organs. By the middle of the century, futurists predict that “computer processing power will double 20 times.”
But before any predictions make you dizzy with the possibilities, remember the one constant in change is Man. “We forget that innovation goes into the most important things in our lives,” says Cornejo. “We always need to innovate if we’re going to change.” The world, says the transplanted Chilean, will always depend on ingenuity and creativity. Computers, like slide rules in previous generations, are just part of the tool kit. Nothing will take place without imagination. “Remember,” he says, “we did not get to the moon totally dependent on computers.”
From the former head of Digital Equipment, Ken Olson, who predicted in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” to what a one-time IBM chairman boldly stated a few years earlier when he said, “I think there is a world market for, maybe, five computers,” people have been wildly off base on this ubiquitous appliance – their utility, their need, their future.
We love them. We sometimes hate them. But however we see them, the tipping point for not needing one is long past. The mystery now is what they will become in five, ten or more years. And how will we use them.