They’re Everywhere

Back in the early nineties a guy named Mark Weiser lead the computer science laboratory at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). He was a proponent of what he called ubiquitous computing which is to say computers everywhere. Now, some twenty five years later we have cell phones and smart watches and the Internet of Things (IoT). In short, he was right. Computers have ended up everywhere.

And they are only getting smaller and more pervasive. The computer scientist and science fiction author Vernor Vinge has written about nano computers the size of particles of dust that form mesh networks that work together to achieve more sophisticated tasks than each could individually undertake.

Sometime during my career it occurred to me that the computer was the universal machine. It takes a wide assortment of accessories to accomplish some of the tasks that it is capable of but it can do practically anything. Moore’s law keeps multiplying what each computing core is capable of while reducing it’s size and cost.

The interesting thing that comes to light when looking at the research that was going on at PARC in the early nineties is that they were absolutely correct about what technology trends were going to happen but they had no idea what the implications of it were. For example, when I first got a smart phone, I didn’t use the text messaging feature much. If I wanted to communicate with someone, I’d call them and talk to them.

Now, I find myself preferring text messaging to phone calls. Text messages can be sent without both parties being free at the exact same time. They are easier to understand in high noise environments. And, there is a record of the conversation. In short they are much more useful than a comparable phone conversation.

Another surprise is how capable the sensor suite on a smart phone turns out to be. They have turned out to be almost as versatile as the Star Trek tricorder. It seems the tricorder fell by the wayside somewhere between the end of Star Trek the original series and Star Trek the Next Generation. It was a marvelous device that has been inspiring inventors ever since. We have come close to duplicating much of its functionality with modern smart phones.

The story has a somewhat sad ending, at least for Mark Weiser. He died at 46 of stomach cancer in 1999 before many of the technologies he pioneered became so widely adopted. And somewhere along the way someone came up with a better name than ubiquitous computing. Internet of Things is much easier to remember. There is a scholarship named after him at the University of California, Berkeley and the ACM SIGOPS awards the MarkWeiser Award annually.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.