“Hello, Computer!”

Our little 20-month-old daughter, Lucy, already knows that if she gets her paws on mommy or daddy’s phone, she can hold down the button on the front and make it talk. She knows that if she talks to it, it will talk back to her.

One wonders if little Gutenberg, sitting at the feet of his father, received lectures on the cumbersome nature of immovable type in printing, and resolved to change things when he got a little older. It would be appropriate, because every generation has its own “in our day” stories.

But in the Information Age, technological development is an exponential growth curve, so that in future generations, comparisons will become nearly impossible; common reference points will be rendered irrelevant by obsolescence. Think of attempts to describe vacuum tubes, LPs or 8-track cassettes in contrast to today’s technology, squared or cubed to a higher order. 

When I wasn’t much older than daughter Lucy, I was fascinated by technology. A “nerd”, I watched reruns of the original Star Trek series after school, and absolutely loved the idea of an “intelligent” computer that could receive input in the form of voice commands and respond in kind, as portrayed in science fiction — as opposed to then’s “cutting edge”: monochromatic green glowing tubes with their ASCII text set, floppy disks storing kilobytes, and single-tone beeps.

Science fiction is suddenly just science. And we get to be here for the ride.

Within just two or three generations, the wonders wrought by the minds of humans have taken members of our species into space and onto other celestial bodies. These revolutionary steps began in our own time, in the infancy of computers. There were machines that cost millions of dollars and filled entire rooms, but provided computing power that is now dwarfed by a basic smartphone.

That’s right. Your phone is more powerful than the computers used for the Apollo missions. Just sit and ponder that for a minute! Your PHONE!

Children born today — from their very earliest memory — will expect computers to talk, and listen. It won’t be long before we will be fooled into believing that we are interacting with actual humans when it is an artificially-created computer intelligence that responds. We already have — a la Skynet and courtesy of Google — self-programming computers.

In 1986, Montgomery Scott — who traveled back in time from 2286, alighted from a cloaked Klingon ship parked in Golden Gate Park. He visited an engineer and encountered a personal computer in the engineer’s office.

The computer — an Apple Macintosh — was one of the most “advanced” PC of the time, because it was equipped with a mouse. I remember those machines; our school received a grant for a Mac computer lab, and they were so cool compared the boring Tandy TRS-80 that my parents owned, and my Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. If you recall, most IBM personal computers still relied upon the text-based MS-DOS, when the mouse (and graphics) was still something of a novelty. Personal computers were only in less than 10% of homes then, in part because they not affordable and couldn’t do very much.

IMG_0241Mr. Scott was handed the computer’s mouse, which he used like a microphone, saying: “Hello, Computer!” Confusion swept across his face at receiving no response. Were he addressing the Enterprise computer, the dulcet tones of Gene Roddenberry’s wife would personalize the shipboard intelligence. When it was suggested that Mr. Scott “Just use the keyboard,” he replied, “How quaint,” before he cracked his knuckles and got to work inputing the formula for transparent aluminum, and potentially altering his own future.

How quaint indeed! The anachronism is already here, 270 years early.



One thought on ““Hello, Computer!”

  1. Pingback: Altar Stones Redux: Chinese Edition | Quartermaster of the Barque

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