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Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

Ross Rambles: What we'll need in the future

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What we'll need in the future

People have never been good at predicting the future, especially not in predicting how future technology will affect our lives.

When the concept of a computing machine was new, no one seemed to know what practical use it would be put to other than the earliest application of calculating ballistics.

In 1943, the head of IBM said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

In 1949, after it had been established that the world could use more than five computers, Popular Mechanics magazine predicted that "Computers in the future may have only 100 vacuum tubes and weigh perhaps 1.5 tons."

A decade later, more compact computers would become necessary for the space program.

There were visionaries in the late 50's and early 60's who thought that every household would have a computer some day but what they would be used for was not clear, perhaps turning lights and appliances on and off at preset times and controlling security systems. People had no idea that the dominant first uses of the early mass produced computers (which didn't exist back then) would be video games and word processing.

One area in which expectations for technology development exceeded what now seems possible is in creating models for forecasting weather. It was once believed that if sufficient data were fed into a powerful computer, that a reliable long-term model of global weather could be created.

It is now known that weather is too complex to be understood through mathematical computations. Any of countless minute factors can have an ever expanding effect. The question posed by Edward Lorenz, an American mathematician and meteorologist was, "Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"

Although we now know that computers cannot predict the course of weather and other dynamic systems, technology has been effective at tasks, that were not foreseen (the future itself being an unpredictable dynamic system).

Even someone who is on the leading edge of technology can fail to grasp the scope of that technology. Bill Gates, software developer, said in 1981, "640K of memory ought to be enough memory for anybody."

So what's the point of all this talk about our inability to see the future of technology?

Well, those familiar with my writing know that I don't require a point to fill space with words, but in this case, I do have one.

Preparing young people to be productive members of a future society involves teaching them how to think, more than it involves teaching them specific knowledge and skills that may or may have relevance in the future. That is a point often mentioned by area school administrators.