More Ramblings from a Los Angeles Programmer

June 16, 2007

Did anybody predict computers accurately?

Filed under: books, technology — Josh DeWald @ 10:36 am

I’m reading a series of short stories by Isaac Asimov (Earth is Room Enough) written in 50s and one of the things that struck me is how badly the state of computing technology was predicted. It’s not just this book, it’s virtually any that I can think of from the 40s and 50s. They mostly assume that video phones will be completely normal, and of course “internal combustion ground cars” will be long gone by early in the 21st century. Going to Mars? Sure, $20.50 please, Customs is over there. Naturally we’re on biometric identification (how would we not be!). Computers are infinitely smart and are the size of an office building (woops!) and communicate with what is basically fancy punch cards (woops again). They’re made out of foil so they are futuristic.

Video calling is slowly becoming popular (it’s been possible since the invention of television basically). No doubt we will be off internal combustion within the next 100 years or so, but I doubt we’ll be flying by then. Biometric security is actually becoming fairly mainstream. Regular trips to Mars (or even the Moon) are probably at least 50 to 100 years off as well.

So all ok predictions.

But you can fit a computer that is multiple orders of magnitude more powerful than a computer from the 50s onto a credit card. If a computer is the size of an office building, it’s really thousands and thousands of individual machines clustered together doing some ridiculously complex (but specialized!) calculation. Computers are nowhere near being infinitely intelligent generic thinking beings. And we’re certainly not communicating via punch-card (though Assembler isn’t too far above, but it’s still entered directly into the computer). Not that today’s programming languages allow us to simply “say” what we want, they are at least unambiguous (you don’t actually want normal human language to be used to tell a system what to do, it’s so chock full of idiom and ambiguity) for the most part. And computer displays are high resolution and capable of displaying interconnected graphics and text in a way that someone from the 40s and 50s couldn’t make a leap to.

Does anybody have any examples of old (pre-60s) science fiction stories that have some inkling of where computers would be today?

I’d actually love to see other examples people have of how computers were perceived in various eras in both science and science fiction. Or maybe collection already exists and someone can point me there.

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