NYT on the Future of Computing
Written by I Programmer Team   
Sunday, 11 December 2011

This week the New York Times has a collection of essays on the subject of "The Future of Computing". We took a look to discover which to recommend.

Every now and again it is worth looking at what sorts of things "deep thinkers" have to say about where we are going. This week the New York Times has a collection of essays for you to read on the subject of "The Future of Computing". At the moment this is a particularly difficult topic because we can't even rely on the most basic predictor - faster, smaller and cheaper no longer seem to hold. Smaller and cheaper perhaps, but faster is one aspect that seems to have stalled in our progress toward something better.

The single best essay by far of the collection is Full Speed Ahead, Without a Map, Into New Realms of Possibility by Theodor Holm Nelson which is amusing and worrying in equal measure. His analysis of the UI, and the hint that technology might actually be constrained by our own desires and limitations, is spot on.


If you have heard about Google's driverless car then you probably don't need to read Sebastian Thrun's essay - Leave the Driving to the Car, and Reap Benefits in Safety and Mobility.  It is a powerful argument and one he has made before - see his TED talk, for example. However, if you don't already know what is round the corner in this particular technology, then you really need to read this article.

Daphne Koller outlines some thoughts on what has already been learned from Stanford's experiment with online courses in Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education Basically she contends that the video generation prefer videos to learn by. This is probably true but it is also depressing that we can't do better. The article also doesn't touch this Fall's widely publicized Stanford online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, co-taught incidentally by Sebastian Thrun, and doesn't present the consumer view - if you want to know more about this see I Programmer's Mid-Term Report on this experiment.

If you have been following the development of the Internet of things you will find An Evolution Toward a Programmable Universe of interest. In it Larry Smarr argues that having so much data on what is happening in the world might bring us to what Asimov called "psychohistory" the ability to predict societies actions and reactions - who would have thought that connecting my fridge to the Internet could change so much!

Big data is also the focus of a number of the essays - it is the current hot topic after all. For example New Tools for New Computing Challenges is a look at mining social data. However if you want to really consider big data you need to read Computer Scientists May Have What It Takes to Help Cure Cancer. This is essentially an explanation of the problems of computational genomics, which can be characterized as simple but massive. Moving even deeper into the biological the essay Taking Faster and Smarter to New Physical Frontiers hardly scratches the surface of what might be possible with biocomputers. Somehow I think that biocomputing will look more like smart medicines than machines.

In an Open-Source Society, Innovating by the Seat of Our Pants takes a look at the ethos of the internet - freedom, free, sharing and co-operative. All superficially positive things but not without their problems.The essay seems to see only good. For a look at evil you need to read In Planning Digital Defenses, the Biggest Obstacle Is Human Ingenuity. This explains to a general audience that idea that no lock is perfect and if you build a wall someone will find a way to climb over it.

Finally we have Quantum Computing Promises New Insights, Not Just Supermachines which pretty much bursts the bubble that QM holds the future of computing. There are only a few problems that benefit from a QM machine and anyway they are still a long way off. What is important is that thinking about building such a machine helps figure out what QM is really all about.

Overall the collection of essays hardly does the subject justice. The need to write for a general audience has dumbed down the material to the point where it virtually has no content unless you already know what is being discussed. Have a look and make up your own mind.




Further Reading

Stanford's Free Computer Science Courses

Sebastian Thrun on Google's driverless car


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Last Updated ( Sunday, 11 December 2011 )