Mitton pienaar

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Greta and Computer Skills for Africa. Greta allowed us to use this venue for our IT professionals forum, which is really taking off now. We are counting about 20 members now after 3 meetings, and I anticipate that it will continue to grow in numbers and usefulness. I would also like to thank you all for this opportunity to talk to all of you.

I’d like to speak about technological growth and innovation, and about how it affects our lives. I’m particularly interested in computers and communication technology, but keep in mind that technology refers to many things, including stone tools and fire.

We all know that computer technology is growing at an incredible rate right now, but I would like to leave you with the idea that this is not a new trend, and has generally been going on for a surprisingly long time.

I’ll speculate briefly about where this may be leading us, and why we should be excited and not scared by the prospects.

Mat Ridley has an interesting measure of quality of life in his book, The Rational Optimist. How long does the average person have to work to afford an hour of reading light? He uses the average income for a person in England for these calculations.

In 1997, to afford one hour of reading light from a compact fluorescent bulb, the average person had to work for half a second.

In 1950, from an incandescent bulb, eight seconds

In 1880 the average person had to work for 15 minutes to afford one hour of light from a kerosene lamp.

In 1800, it was 6 hours for a tallow candle. The average person in 1800 could not afford a candle.

Life has been improving for our ancestors very rapidly since about 100000 years ago, although, the economic data gets a bit sketchy, as Matt Ridley says. Today GDP per capita is increasing. We are in the tail end of a recession now. Recessions are horrible things, but if you look at the long term, they don’t really have that much impact. The great depression before World War 2 really mad only a dip in the long term GDP growth of the world. If this rate of growth continues, our grandchildren will be 6 times as wealthy as us.

Even in Africa, poverty is declining, and so is wealth disparity. Developing nations are growing faster than developed nations, and it seems likely that Africa will follow Asia into prosperity.

What put humanity on this incredible rate of growth? Human beings are not unique in using tools, or culture. Chimpanzees have culture, they teach one another how to use tools. It’s not language, it is believed that Neanderthals had language. They had some genetic markers that we associate with language in modern humans, and we can tell from the shape of their skulls that they were probably able to speak as we do.

It seems that it was the idea of trade that caused the sudden growth of innovation. Matt Ridley tells a story of two caveman, Adam and Oz. Each of them needs an axe and a spear to go hunting. Adam is better than Oz at making both spears and axes. Adam is slightly better at making spears, and Oz is slightly better at making axes. Should Adam make his spear and ax, and leave Oz to make his own? A better idea would be for Adam to make two spears, and for Oz to make two axes, and then trade, so each has both a spear and an axe. This way, they will each have a spear and an axe, and they will have worked 6 hours instead of 8 hours between them. What is also going to happen, is that Adam is going to get better at making spears and Oz will get better at making axes.

Now, computers come in at the tail end of this story, and we can use the development of computing power to illustrate just how astonishing it really is.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore described an interesting trend concerning the growth of the components that could be placed on an integrated circuit (computer chip). From the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958 until 1965, the number of components on an integrated circuit doubled every year. He also predicted that the trend would continue for at least 10 years. It did, and with some adjustments to the details, it’s still continuing today. Intel uses it for production planning.

More components on integrated circuits mean lots of great things for us, from more entertaining games and more megapixels on your digital camera, more accurate weather forecasts and chess playing computers that can no longer be beaten by any human player. It makes computers more powerful tools, and it makes them more accessible to everyone.

My first computer was an XT. It had a 20MB hard drive, 8 bit microprocessor running at 8 MHz, meaning 8 million operations per second, and 640 KB of RAM. It cost R3000 in 1990, which was 23 years ago, by the way. My XT was awesome, and mostly I used it for playing games. Monty’s revenge, Commander Keen, Space Quest. I could never beat it at chess, but many people could.

In my pocket, I have some slightly less outdated technology. This is a first generation Samsung Galaxy S. It was created in 2010, three years ago, and it is ridiculous how much more powerful it is than my XT was.

XT Samsung Galaxy S
Storage 20MB 8GB
Processor Speed 8MHz 1GHz

Processor speed is not that meaningful as the Samsung has a 128 bit RISC processor with 3D graphics capability built-in. Also, my XT was an island. This device is connected right now to almost every other computer on earth, through the internet. In 2009, a chess engine running on a mobile phone attained grand-master level in a chess tournament, with a performance rating of 2898. They don’t do human computer chess matches anymore.

Would you say computers think? Does a human chess player think when playing chess? Maybe the question is as meaningless as asking how airplanes fly without flapping their wings, like birds do.

Moore’s law is slowing down. It’s not possible for exponential growth to continue indefinetly. But remember that integrated circuits were not the first computing technology, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Before Integrated circuits, there were discrete transistors. Before transistors there were vacuum tubes, which the british used to crack the German military encryption. Before vacuum tubes there were electrical relays. Before electrical relays there were electromechanical computers, such as Hollerith’s tabulator, which the US government used to tabulate census results in record time.

Technology waiting in the wings to take the baton of integrated circuits include carbon nanotubes and quantum computing.

What are we on track for if this explosion of computing power continues beyond Moore’s law?

Futurist and all round amazing person Ray Kurzwill has some interesting ideas in his 2009 book, The singularity is near.

He predicts that by 2020, a computer with the capacity of a human brain will be available for $1000, and that by 2045, the same amount will buy a computer with the computing capacity of all human brains on the planet. Today his predictions seem a bit optimistic, but not much.

Whether Kurzwill’s wild predictions come true or not, it’s clear that we’re bound for an exciting future. Should we be concerned? We’d be stupid not to be concerned, but I think we’ll cope.

In his 1970 book, Future Shock, Alvin Tofler warned about debilitating information overload. I don’t think we’re debilitated by information at all, quite the opposite.

And having finished computer training, all of you have better equipped yourselves to deal with it.

So in summary. It’s exciting to be alive right now. We’re at the cutting edge of a very long historical trend of progress that shows no signs of going away, and we’re equipping ourselves to deal with it, and to use it to our advantage.

I thank you.

Thanks Mitton, we really appreciate your hard work.