The rate of technological progress ---------------------------------- by Steven Flintham (15A) ------------------------ I'd like to start by apologising forthe fact that this isn't strictly aboutthe 8-bit BBC Micros - or evencomputing in particular. However, it isabout technology and it strikes me thata computer "magazine" is probably goingto be read by people interested in thatsort of thing. Besides, where else am Igoing to get the chance to sound offabout it to people who might beinterested? It doesn't seem so common now, butabout four or five years ago, it wasvery common to read articles and booksabout just how fast technology isprogressing. In the introduction to abook published in about 1984 (I can'tremember the title), I read somethingthat claimed that if aviationtechnology had progressed as fast ascomputing technology, it would costjust £5.00 to fly to America. Althoughit has never been stressed quite asstrongly, the rate of generaltechnological progress was alsocontinually proclaimed asextraordinarily fast. For completeness,I will quote the following example,which should serve to illustrate thepoint (this is not an exact quote, justan approximation): Imagine that the entire time which manhas existed up until the present day isrepresented by a twelve hour clockface.On this scale, over the period of timerepresented by ONE SECOND on theclockface, we have discoveredelectricity, placed objects (andpeople) in space, (and so on - you knowthe sort of thing) What worries me is that I can't seem tosee any evidence that this rate oftechnological progress is continuing -or did it never exist? I'd like tostress that I'm extremely keen ontechnological innovation - I'm notpleased at this apparent shortage. Being the well-informed person I am, Itend to watch "Tommorrow's World"whenever I remember, and it seems to methat the so-called "progress" isgetting less and less spectacular. Afew years ago, we were told of newcomputing techniques, innovations inthe space programme, the discovery of anew gene. Now, all we seem to hearabout is techniques for looking afterpremature babies, a feature aboutfood-related science, new discoveriesabout the ozone layer. I'm not claimingthat this isn't important, but none ofit seems revolutionary anymore. Please, will someone tell me that theworld isn't really slowing down? Have Ijust become disillusioned, or is thisreally happening? Looking at the computer magazines tellsthe same story. Where are theinnovations? Where's the invention ofthe new compression technique which cancram 5Mb of data into 3k? Where's thenew style of processor? Where's theparallel processing we were promised? Personally, I find it difficult to getexcited about 24-bit colour (impressivethough it is), and although computersmight be getting faster, it's only bynotching up the clock rate. Yes, theARM250 is quite a good idea, but Idon't find it stunning. Yes, the newA30XX series is quite cheap, but notrevolutionary. It could be that this article is justrevealing me to be an exceptionallybadly informed person - all over thecountry, people could be crying out,"But what about...?" Well, I'll gladlylook like a fool if it means that I canstop worrying. Please, somebody, tellme I've missed something... -- Well, I'll do my best to put you outof your misery. First of all, it's allvery well reading about how fasttechnology has progressed in the lasteighty years or so, or flicking throughtwo decades of computer development ina couple of paragraphs. But perceptionof time on a day-to-day basis is ratherdifferent. You can't expect to findmajor new developments arriving withenough frequency to give the sameimpression of speed. I can certainly see your point aboutTomorrow's World, but it may just bethat these days the emphasis of theprogram is less upon scientific andtechnological advance itself than uponthe applications being derived from it(since the majority of the populationare more interested in new gadgetrythan actual science), and that suchdown-to-earth details can very rarelybe as exciting to the informedbystander as major scientificdiscoveries. At the same time I think it is purelypart of the development of scientificknowledge that things seem to haveslowed down now, while a century ago(or more) momentous steps forward fromignorance were being made. Thediscovery that the Earth goes round thesun was an immensely important stepforward, while modern astronomersdiscovering a particular hole on themoon cannot be compared. Similarly thediscovery of electricity was an immensestep forward simply because of theignorance of electricity that had gonebefore, while a new discovery about theway electricity behaves across certainminor superconducting materials ispretty unimpressive. What I mean to say is that as scienceprogresses from large-scalefundamentals of how physics works tothe smaller details, things will beginto be more of a slow advance in overallknowledge than a progression of suddenleaps. Though I could be proved wrongif somebody comes up with a major leapforward; nuclear fusion maybe? To get back to computers. It seems tome that things haven't really sloweddown here. Bear in mind that the 286 PCbecame available in 1986, and the 386took something like another four yearsto arrive, while the 486 appearedalmost immediately after the 386, andcan now be obtained for under £1000.Effectively, the power of the averagepersonal computer is doubling everyyear-and-a-half, although as I've saidbefore, seeking processing power forits own sake is rather foolish. This may not do anything revolutionary,but the new advances, together withthings like CD-ROM and so on, willallow a whole new spectrum ofapplications. Things like games withtelevision-quality graphics fetchedready-made from CD backed by CD-qualitysound (effectively interactivetelevision progams), multimediaapplications, videophones on your PC,and developments like virtual reality.Progress on this sort of thing so farhas been incredibly sluggishconsidering the possibilities, but theprogress will happen; within two yearsthings like this will be available forthe equivalent of under £1000 for acomplete system. There will never be a technique toallow 5Mb to be compressed into 3K;compression can only go so far. Butparallel processing is ALREADY here;the use of multiple processorsoperating different tasks is the basisof the 486 PC. It is also the basis ofmy system, and offers significantadvantages; with the 65C12 performinginput/output operations, the 32016processor carrying out languageprocessing, and the 32081 (built intothe 32016) dealing with floating-pointarithmetic, the system can carry outfloating-point operations faster thanan A540, the top-of-the-rangeArchimedes. On a larger scale, prototype"superneurocomputers" have in fact beenbuilt, and demonstrated to besignificantly more cost-effective thanconventional computers. Networks of PCscan also be made to work together onlong calculations (imagine an entireoffice-block full of 486s workingtogether). My university'smicrocomputer society are apparentlyplanning to take all their out-datedARM2 processors out of their oldArchimedes and build a parallelcomputer with them. I'm afraid the software to support allthis innovation properly has not yetbeen written, and although there is nowmore than enough processing poweraround to handle all the vast quantityof data available for processing, theartificial intelligence needed for acomputer to actually understand it isstill a long way off - talks I haveattended on serious AI research andapplications seem to indicate that thesubject is still stuck somewhere in theearly 1970s.