Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Keeping track of progress

Golden Age SF promised us a future that still eludes us.

Cheap and limitless power from fusion? Hah! True AIs, the kind that can be your Internet avatar or operate a multi-purpose home robot? Hah! Hah! Space colonization? Yeah, right. Space tourism, only if you're a millionaire. Commercial air travel is no faster than in the Sixties (and actually much slower end to end, when adjusted for TSA delays and ATC congestion). People have built flying cars, but they're (IMO) silly curiosities, poor choices as either a plane or a car.

Of course SF mostly missed computing and computers. We do have a wondrous Internet, smartphones, and personal computers that run rings around the mainframes on which I learned to program.

Still: even the Internet/smartphones/PCs sometimes disappoint. How much Internet capacity supports pointless drivel? (I'm thinking: 500 *million* people on Facebook. Umm, why? Plenty o' porn. 99% of what's on YouTube. And don't get me started on Twitter.) And how many smartphone apps are totally trivial?

Although I buy a new PC every few years, always vastly more powerful than the last, it's hardly because of progress. Invariably the old computer can still process words, calculate spreadsheets, browse the web, and email to my satisfaction. No, the reasons to buy a new computer are (a) because the old bloated, unreliable, nonsecure OS will no longer be supported, so that Microsoft can make me buy a new bloated, unreliable, nonsecure OS and (b) to run a new generation of security software against the @#$%! who write malware.

And yet there *is* progress. Witness: the Global Positioning System. For not much over a hundred bucks (although you can certainly spend more, for more features), you can own a GPS receiver to locate yourself precisely anywhere in the world and plan your route to most anywhere else. For sure, the Golden Age prognosticators entirely missed that possibility.

I got to thinking about what the GPS entails. It's a very impressive list:

On the space end:
  • reliable, portable, very precise atomic clocks.
  • reliable satellites to host the clocks and transmit the time.
  • reliable satellite-launching capability to build and maintain the GPS satellite constellation.
  • physics knowledge to understand and correct for the effects of special and general relativity. (A clock zipping by in free fall does not experience the passage of time in the same way as does a stationary person on Earth.)
And for the little device in your car:
  • bright, hi-res, color displays.
  • powerful microprocessors and clever software to calculate (from the arrival times of clock signals from any in-sight GPS satellites) -- in nothing flat -- your position and and your alternate routes.
  • high-density memory to store millions of points of interest and untold amounts of road topography.
  • clever user-interface design to make it all intuitive to use.
I'll throw in broadband Internet to the home to distribute the huge files of map updates and points of interest. And some brands of GPS receiver leverage a *useful* instance of social networking -- collecting real-world, time-of-day-sensitive experience on traffic conditions with which to fine-tune route planning.

(And yes, GPS on a smartphone *is* a practical, nontrivial app.)

Now there's a future I can get excited about -- in a good way.

If you're curious, here's the GPS receiver that I recently acquired and am so enamored of.


Robert said...

I too am depressed at the state of the internet, the internet has the potential to be a wonderful tool, however when there are people out there who's only goal is either to make money or cause chaos for regular people the usefulness of that tool is degraded and you are left with a tool that is too threatening and dangerous to be wonderful.
I am too young to have known a time when the internet was not as convoluted as it is today, my first access to the internet was restricted and controlled by a software program that was just trying to filter out the smut and filth but even that was only successful while the version was up to date.

As for the "wonders" of mobile telecommunication, those are things I can live without, if mobile phones were still just mobile telephones that might have an appeal, now however you can no longer find a cell phone plan that is not overpriced just because they want to offer me a data plan that I would not use. I have opted out of a cell phone for years and with the way the business of mobile phones is going, there is no cell phone in my foreseeable future.

I work in technology and sometimes when I am rooting through a computers memory trying to find the source of a problem and finding evidence of hundreds of computer viruses, worms, and rootkits, that I can do almost nothing about, I get depressed about the future of technology; not just digital electronics though, my imagination is much to vibrant for that. With consumerism not only driving the products that appear on the market, but the research to develop new products I cannot help but imagine a world where new technological advancements are immediately turned into a new social tool, this is a dark vision of the future but not an impossible one, it is a sad day when a big company on the forefront of technology spends more on PR than they do on R&D. But I cannot put blame directly on the companies, for todays consumer technological advancement means nothing unless it can benefit them "right now".

Sorry about the ranting, sometimes it just slips out, when I find myself thinking bleakly about the future of our society and world I have to think about all the good things that have come from our technological advancement...

Do not forget the other advantages of living in the satellite age, voice and data communications almost anywhere where you can see the sky, pictures of things beyond our planet such as nebula, geysers of water on Saturn's moon Enceladus, the accretion disks of black holes, not to mention the increasing viability of using orbital stations as jumping off points for future jaunts into space. Hopefully it will not stop there.

It is up to those of us with a vision of a brighter future that must work relentlessly towards it to avoid a future with much darker possibilities.

Edward M. Lerner said...


Thanks for your feedback. Absolutely, the Internet has its uses! I didn't mean to imply otherwise.

(FYI, blogspot gave me four iterations of your comment submission, or excerpts thereof. I kept the first complete version.)

- Ed