8-Bit Software Online Conversion

The rate of technological progress ---------------------------------- by Steven Flintham (15A) ------------------------ I'd like to start by apologising for the fact that this isn't strictly about the 8-bit BBC Micros - or even computing in particular. However, it is about technology and it strikes me that a computer "magazine" is probably going to be read by people interested in that sort of thing. Besides, where else am I going to get the chance to sound off about it to people who might be interested? It doesn't seem so common now, but about four or five years ago, it was very common to read articles and books about just how fast technology is progressing. In the introduction to a book published in about 1984 (I can't remember the title), I read something that claimed that if aviation technology had progressed as fast as computing technology, it would cost just £5.00 to fly to America. Although it has never been stressed quite as strongly, the rate of general technological progress was also continually proclaimed as extraordinarily fast. For completeness, I will quote the following example, which should serve to illustrate the point (this is not an exact quote, just an approximation): Imagine that the entire time which man has existed up until the present day is represented by a twelve hour clockface. On this scale, over the period of time represented by ONE SECOND on the clockface, we have discovered electricity, placed objects (and people) in space, (and so on - you know the sort of thing) What worries me is that I can't seem to see any evidence that this rate of technological progress is continuing - or did it never exist? I'd like to stress that I'm extremely keen on technological innovation - I'm not pleased at this apparent shortage. Being the well-informed person I am, I tend to watch "Tommorrow's World" whenever I remember, and it seems to me that the so-called "progress" is getting less and less spectacular. A few years ago, we were told of new computing techniques, innovations in the space programme, the discovery of a new gene. Now, all we seem to hear about is techniques for looking after premature babies, a feature about food-related science, new discoveries about the ozone layer. I'm not claiming that this isn't important, but none of it seems revolutionary anymore. Please, will someone tell me that the world isn't really slowing down? Have I just become disillusioned, or is this really happening? Looking at the computer magazines tells the same story. Where are the innovations? Where's the invention of the new compression technique which can cram 5Mb of data into 3k? Where's the new style of processor? Where's the parallel processing we were promised? Personally, I find it difficult to get excited about 24-bit colour (impressive though it is), and although computers might be getting faster, it's only by notching up the clock rate. Yes, the ARM250 is quite a good idea, but I don't find it stunning. Yes, the new A30XX series is quite cheap, but not revolutionary. It could be that this article is just revealing me to be an exceptionally badly informed person - all over the country, people could be crying out, "But what about...?" Well, I'll gladly look like a fool if it means that I can stop worrying. Please, somebody, tell me I've missed something... -- Well, I'll do my best to put you out of your misery. First of all, it's all very well reading about how fast technology has progressed in the last eighty years or so, or flicking through two decades of computer development in a couple of paragraphs. But perception of time on a day-to-day basis is rather different. You can't expect to find major new developments arriving with enough frequency to give the same impression of speed. I can certainly see your point about Tomorrow's World, but it may just be that these days the emphasis of the program is less upon scientific and technological advance itself than upon the applications being derived from it (since the majority of the population are more interested in new gadgetry than actual science), and that such down-to-earth details can very rarely be as exciting to the informed bystander as major scientific discoveries. At the same time I think it is purely part of the development of scientific knowledge that things seem to have slowed down now, while a century ago (or more) momentous steps forward from ignorance were being made. The discovery that the Earth goes round the sun was an immensely important step forward, while modern astronomers discovering a particular hole on the moon cannot be compared. Similarly the discovery of electricity was an immense step forward simply because of the ignorance of electricity that had gone before, while a new discovery about the way electricity behaves across certain minor superconducting materials is pretty unimpressive. What I mean to say is that as science progresses from large-scale fundamentals of how physics works to the smaller details, things will begin to be more of a slow advance in overall knowledge than a progression of sudden leaps. Though I could be proved wrong if somebody comes up with a major leap forward; nuclear fusion maybe? To get back to computers. It seems to me that things haven't really slowed down here. Bear in mind that the 286 PC became available in 1986, and the 386 took something like another four years to arrive, while the 486 appeared almost immediately after the 386, and can now be obtained for under £1000. Effectively, the power of the average personal computer is doubling every year-and-a-half, although as I've said before, seeking processing power for its own sake is rather foolish. This may not do anything revolutionary, but the new advances, together with things like CD-ROM and so on, will allow a whole new spectrum of applications. Things like games with television-quality graphics fetched ready-made from CD backed by CD-quality sound (effectively interactive television progams), multimedia applications, videophones on your PC, and developments like virtual reality. Progress on this sort of thing so far has been incredibly sluggish considering the possibilities, but the progress will happen; within two years things like this will be available for the equivalent of under £1000 for a complete system. There will never be a technique to allow 5Mb to be compressed into 3K; compression can only go so far. But parallel processing is ALREADY here; the use of multiple processors operating different tasks is the basis of the 486 PC. It is also the basis of my system, and offers significant advantages; with the 65C12 performing input/output operations, the 32016 processor carrying out language processing, and the 32081 (built into the 32016) dealing with floating-point arithmetic, the system can carry out floating-point operations faster than an A540, the top-of-the-range Archimedes. On a larger scale, prototype "superneurocomputers" have in fact been built, and demonstrated to be significantly more cost-effective than conventional computers. Networks of PCs can also be made to work together on long calculations (imagine an entire office-block full of 486s working together). My university's microcomputer society are apparently planning to take all their out-dated ARM2 processors out of their old Archimedes and build a parallel computer with them. I'm afraid the software to support all this innovation properly has not yet been written, and although there is now more than enough processing power around to handle all the vast quantity of data available for processing, the artificial intelligence needed for a computer to actually understand it is still a long way off - talks I have attended on serious AI research and applications seem to indicate that the subject is still stuck somewhere in the early 1970s.