The Future, as viewed in 1986


1986-A Look to the Future

I was sorting through some old papers and found this article I wrote for a local (at the time) computer club newsletter called Connecticut Computer Society (CCS) News. It was printed in the April, 1986 issue and contains some ideas about what the future would hold. Now, 10 years later, I am putting the article on the Web for historical and/or hysterical purposes...

Sure, I don't agree with all of it anymore, some of it seems downright silly--but I think you'll agree that it helps put things in perspective to review something like this "after the fact".

Future Access

By Russell D. Hoffman

First printed in CCS NEWS, April, 1986

A lot of industry talk about downturns and upturns and so on in the computer field leads me to want to state my opinion. The whole world of computerization possible in the home has not even begun to occur. The machines that are being sold now will be replaced by machines two orders of magnitude different in the next 3-6 years--one order lower in price, one up in power. This will be repeated several times before the end of the century. The average home will have DOZENS of computers, many of which will of course be dedicated to single tasks--controlling climate (including solar equipment), answering the phone (intelligently), and so on.

Likewise, the T.V. will get much smarter and be able, for instance, to broadcast not two but as many stations as you like in as many "windows" as you like in as many sizes as you like--on multiple screens thoughout the house. Simple technology, really. The decisive factor is manufacturing costs and producer-willingness to spend "R. & D." (Research and Development) money on complex operating systems (and the ever-present debacle--how do we interface this power with the user?). A major change will occur as super-fast, low-power comsumption, computers-on-chips allow lower development costs and push ever-important "chip count" down. (Higher chip counts generally mean higher manufacturing costs, more power usage, lower reliability, and so on.)

One possible way to interface common household devices would be with a computer/keyboard/display unit which uses an infared connection like the PC jr.'s, but the whole unit might be about the size of the Junior's keyboard, with a flip-up electroluminescent display. One might "activate" the device to be "reprogrammed" by touching a switch on the device and then use the keyboard and associated programs to control it.

Some day, a fiber optic cable will wind its way into everybody's homes and shortly thereafter a new information revolution will occur. (At least I hope so.) We will no longer need to restrict ourselves to the tiny amount of variety that three major networks and cable provide (remember, I said T.V.s would get smarter, not television programs!) because inexpensive audio/video can enter the home (let's say you want to watch a class going on at M.I.T., or the U.S. Congress in action...). We will demand access to more (and more timely) information from our news and reference sources, and (hopefully) greater accessibility to public officials, corporations, and the information sources.

Of course, the whole Key is an understanding by Corporate America of the importance of intelligent machines. An oven should be built not only to last but to be aware of things like its own energy usage. A radio should know the name of its owner and favorite radio stations. (I often go to Boston or New York, and would like to be able to reset all the buttons to all the stations I found on previous trips to those cities). In fact I should be able to carry my little keyboard around and program any car radio and the rest of the car too, at the same instant to my liking. It should know what stations are available from public databases maintained by the F.C.C. and broadcast on "sidebands." And of course, my car should know where I am at all times and what current road-construction, traffic, and accidents might be in the area to affect my journey. A "black box" should be recording my driving in case of an accident just like an airplane pilot's. Driving is very dangerous and I, for one, feel that many incompetents do virtually as much damage as the "voluntarily incompetent" (drunks). In any case, black boxes would settle many issues as to who was at fault, which all careful drivers should applaud.

The public library will eventually disappear unless public reading rooms are desired and unless historical documents rate heavy importance. All information will be accessed though the computer and if you have trouble finding what you want, distant people connected by electronic means will take the place of the librarian.

If people have been dreaming about these things for years, where is all this stuff?

I think we are still a long way from most of it, because the hardware to do a really good job is just now becoming available at reasonable prices. Multi-channel T.V.'s are just coming out and are expensive. Figuring out just how to present intelligent machines to the public which often doesn't even perceive a need for them is a very tricky business and hardly one with many known successes. And if the public thinks two-channel T.V. is a leap and a bound more amazing than one-channel T.V., why sell them any more? We are not a country of high-tech gadgeteers despite what we may think ourselves to be. We are often satisfied with the very scum of the technological world.

But then, when I.B.M. first started making computers, they had no idea that they could sell so many of them. Economics forced computers into the business world but that won't happen in the home market. The computerized T.V. of tomorrow may be cheaper but that will be due to mechanized manufacturing that every product will be involved with. The chip count will be much lower than in today's T.V.'s but they may always be a fairly high-ticket item. All this means that in order for T.V.'s to get smarter (at almost no cost when the R&D is averaged out over many units) people have to want it and business has to percieve that desire and act on it.

Of course, the big question is: When will robots come into the home, do the dishes, turn up the "dumb" thermostat, walk the dog and never put the dinner to bed and cook the baby?

We can begin to conceive of robotic applications for the home only when comsumers are totally comfortable with intelligent mechanical devices that don't move around.

Written by Russell D. Hoffman in early 1986, and first published in the newsletter of the Connecticut Computer Society in April, 1986.

Please distribute this document IN ITS ENTIRETY (as a raw HTML file or printed document). Please link to it rather than placing it on another server. Thank you.

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