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!

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