Sunday, November 18, 2012

“Has progress plateaued?”

This question is posed in an editorial by D.J.Tice, commentary editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

I like his choice of words; he's not suggesting that progress has come to an end, merely that the waves of change we boomers have all lived through have, for the most part, run their course, and nothing on the same scale has really taken hold yet.

You might object ‘But what about the increasing power and penetration of computers? What about the Internet?’ My response to this is that, so far, both phenomena have been noisier than their real contribution to people's lives have warranted.

The main impact of computers as they currently exist happened a couple of decades ago. Subsequent increases in the speed of the underlying electronics have enabled incremental improvement in usability, but it's only since 2007, and the burgeoning ubiquity of touchscreen devices which followed, that anything really new has happened in computing since the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh, and even that turn of events is beginning to feel a bit stale after five years. The popularity of the Wii, then of the Kinect, show that we haven't yet solved the human-computer interface problem.

The Internet has grown like a weed patch, displacing other media and offline activities, and making a wide range of information far easier to access than used to be the case, but the average quality of that information is fairly low as compared even with the golden age of television (when there were only 3 or 4 networks to divide the audience), and only those with better than average search skills could really be said to be better informed than before. Again, we are only beginning to figure out how to make all of this networked data relevant in people's lives.

Nowhere is this sort of thing more evident than in robotics. Except for the Roomba, and other similar appliances, a handful of military applications, and a few toys, there has been very little to show for all of the noise about robots since the rollout of industrial robots in the early 1960s, at least until quite recently.

But, while the world has waited for something to come of it, the necessary conditions for a robotics revolution have been falling into place, and it's from this direction that I expect the next big wave of change to come. In fact, that wave has already begun to arrive!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

closing the election season chapter and looking forward

While I'm gratified by the result of the presidential election, I can't help being horrified that it was as close as it was. I mean, REALLY! Romney and Ryan in the White House? Even if you assume that most of their rhetoric was only that, designed to keep habitual GOP voters from bolting or sitting this one out, it was still a scary prospect. ‘Let's further entrench the idiotic policies that got us into this economic mess in the first place.’ This was the choice offered in place of Obama, the most upright, clear-thinking, and strong-willed President we've had since John Kennedy, perhaps longer, and yet the popular vote was as close as it was. I have to wonder what the outcome would have been if Jesus Christ had been running instead of Obama; would Romney have won? What a lot of work we have ahead of us, untangling the confusion of our brethren and their children.

Looking forward, I'm anticipating a lot of the same, which is to say moderate progress despite the noncooperation of the Republican dominated House of Representatives. With the government thus hamstrung, the main source of progress for the next two years, until the next congressional election, will be the backlog of unexploited applications enabled by recent advancements in technology, and the renewed entrepreneurial spirit that is everywhere in evidence, with its intense focus on providing practical solutions to real problems and making stuff that enhances people's lives – as opposed to get-rich-quick schemes built around financial instruments of dubious value, which were all the rage during the previous administration.

Obama can be counted upon to get the government behind this new economy as much as can be accomplished through the power of his office and through his personal influence, but for the most part it's up to us.