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The Computers of Tomorrow (1964) (theatlantic.com)
46 points by danso on Nov 16, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 13 comments

The final line of this article is just astounding to me:

> Barring unforeseen obstacles, an on-line interactive computer service, provided commercially by an information utility, may be as commonplace by 2000 AD as telephone service is today. By 2000 AD man should have a much better comprehension of himself and his system, not because he will be innately any smarter than he is today, but because he will have learned to use imaginatively the most powerful amplifier of intelligence yet devised.

An "on-line interactive computer service"?...what did "on-line" even mean back then...nevermind "interactive"...The prediction in 1964 that we would have "an information utility as commonplace by 2000 AD as telephone service is today" must be one of the most prescient and accurate three-decade predictions ever made in a general interest magazine.

I agree that looking back at that statement from modern day is just mind blowing. BUT, I think it is good to remember that (in all honesty)fundamental computing did not advance after the 1970s. PLs, OSs, computer networks, etc., were all invented in the early 1970s or earlier. Most of what has been done in computing in the last several decades have been improved versions of the concepts invented in the 50s and 60s. JGrahamC calls this "Turing's Curse". [0]

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVZxkFAIziA

Brilliant talk, thanks for linking to it...I love the bit (8:40) where he says, "The thing you are doing has likely been done before. And that might seem depressing, but I think it's the most wonderful thing ever. Because it means an education in computer science is worth something."

Actually, it rather fails to hold, in large part because the terminology has so changed in the intervening decades.

In 1964, the idea that computers would largely be small devices that sit on your disk or even in your pocket was unimaginable. The microcomputer--the forerunner of today's computers--wouldn't be developed for another decade. The term computer back then meant the big room-filling mainframes, and it would certainly have been infeasible that home users could own those computers.

When you look at the context of the article, it's clearly describing the future where you have access to time-shared resources on a large, central computer. On-line and interactive are meant as a reference in contrast to batch systems: in the days of punch cards, you typically operated by submitting your punch cards to be run and waiting for the results to come back--sometimes hours.

In effect, to use more modern terminology, the article is predicting: "By 2000, you'll be able to purchase from Comcast (or other friendly telco) access to a computer that runs a suite of intelligent expert systems that will drive several professions out of business."

That prediction is more wrong than it is right: 1. You don't buy access to a computer, you own one outright. 2. Most of the intelligent expert systems it predicts don't exist. 3. Most of the professions purported to be obsolete are not. Travel planner is about the only counterexample I can think of, but that's not because computers are doing the planning. I'm not even sure if the 2000 deadline was met for that one. 4. The closest service to what it predicts would exist is Watson. Which debuted in 2011, wasn't commercially available until 2013, and certainly isn't commonplace or even easily accessible even to corporate users.

About the only thing it got right was that computers would move from batch mode to interactive mode. The expert system model has completely failed--note this article would have been written before automatic machine translation of natural languages was declared a failure (and it still is, 50 years later). Even with the rise of Big Data, most of the goals of computers in that article still seem difficult or impossible to achieve. I personally believe that Big Data is going to lead to the fourth (fifth? I've lost track) big AI crash. Impressive, really, that people still have high hopes for AI when it has failed to live up to those promises for over 60 years.

Not sure if it is as wrong as it sounds. In many ways the computing world today isn't that different. We sit at home with fairly simple terminals like iPads or laptops while computers filling entire rooms at google, facebook etc are performing a large part of our calculations. The web is in a way just an evolved or advance form of teletyper terminal that allows us to connect to more powerful clusters of computers offering us different services.

The modem was invented in 1958 so the idea of computer networks was not far fetched in 1964. For context the Internet as in the same (TCP/IP) network was born in 1969 and was designed before then.

The number of quotable quotes in this article is absolutely astounding. But this one stood out to me the most:

> "The increased possibilities for embezzlement through fraudulent accounting may attract some of the resulting unemployed, but there are ways that the computer can be deputized to police its own operation, quietly and without danger of corruption."

As it outright acknowledges increased unemployment stemming from the ease by which computers can do the same task that it would normally have taken hundreds of individuals to accomplish.

And yet, to this day, we still refuse to acknowledge this. Most of the politicians running this country (U.S.) were children (or teenagers) when this article came out. At what point did humanity decide to just ignore the impending changes a fully computational world was bringing?

In theory, automation does not ensure unemployment, but it does lower wages. In theory, so long as you have a central government that is willing to engage in enough fiscal stimulus, and a central bank that is willing to engage in enough monetary stimulus, then a society can always achieve full employment. However, automation lowers the value of unskilled labor, and certain types of automation can invalidate the value of certain types of skill, so for unskilled labor and for certain types of skills, automation lowers wages. See:


"If this is the wave of the future, it makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality. Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society”, or whatever it is the likes of Paul Ryan etc. are selling this week, won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents. And so on.

I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications."



"Mechanization eventually — that is, after a couple of generations — led to a broad rise in British living standards. But it’s far from clear whether typical workers reaped any benefits during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; many workers were clearly hurt. And often the workers hurt most were those who had, with effort, acquired valuable skills — only to find those skills suddenly devalued."

Also, the typical analysis of the Industrial Revolution only looks at workers in one country, rather than studying the impact that cheap exports from England had on nations such as India or China. The reality is that a small number of rapidly industrializing nations were able to export their unemployment overseas. The devastation caused by the Industrial Revolution lasted for centuries and some countries (India) have still not recovered even now.

Wow! This article was fantastically well-informed and insightful, and beautifully written. It tempts me to make a fallacious remark like "journalists were just better in those days"!

Seeing how well this author was able to reason about the future gives me hope that our current predictions about tech might not be so far off.

Martin Greenberger, who is associate professor at the School of Industrial Management of M.I.T., has been working with computers for fourteen years.

He wasn't a journalist.

This is a surprising thing to see written in 1964:

"Given the advanced state of development of present communications lines, it is unlikely that information utilities will wish to invest in their own communication networks. This may be taken as an argument against the necessity for stifling free competition and placing information utilities under public regulation; yet, there is another massive investment that the information utilities will not be able to sidestep as easily, if at all -- namely, investment in the large programming systems required to supervise the operation of the information utility and provide its services. The information utility should be able to shift part of this burden to the shoulders of its customers, but it will have to bear responsibility itself for the design, maintenance, and modification of the core of the programming system. The vast potential magnitude of this system, plus the fact that its usefulness may not extend beyond the physical machinery for which it was constructed, plus the possibility of programming waste from having too many entries in the field, may tip the balance in favor of a regulated monopoly."

They foresaw much of the current debate regarding the market power of cloud providers such as Amazon, and how much government regulation is needed.

And note that this bit was written before credit cards had become commonplace in the USA (and at a time when debit cards were wholly unknown):

"Suppose, for example, that businesses of all sizes have simple terminals linking them electronically to a central information exchange. Then each business can make instantaneous credit checks and offer its customers the convenience of universal credit cards. These cards, referred to by some as "money keys." together with the simple terminals and information exchange, can all but eliminate the need for currency, checks, cash registers, sales slips, and making change. "

An agent can act as intermediary if self-service turned out to be unprofitable; or the computer may be able to sell its own insurance policies via persuasive discourse with the customer.

In their wildest dreams, nobody could have predicted that in fifty years, legions of insurance reps would be replaced by animated gekkos, teleported good neighbors, retired comic strip characters, office camels, and ruby-lipped deli clerks. Nobody.

> Research investigators will specify their precise data requirements and will requisition custom studies from the files of the information utility. [...] It is not a mere flight of fancy to anticipate the day when information automatically acquired during the operation of the information utility feeds directly into decision mechanisms that regulate the economy and the activity of companies.

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