by Dave Riley
BESIDE THE FRONT DOOR inside one of my favorite seafood restaurants is an inscription that reads: “He was a bold man who first swallowed an oyster.”
Well spoken. It takes a brave person to be the first at that and a lot of other things — riding a zip line, having open-heart surgery, blasting off into space. Most of us would just as soon wait and see how things work out for others.
For twenty years until I retired in 1999, I did a lot of writing for a bank, which, like most businesses of that era, was undergoing extensive high-tech upgrading. Many of the pieces I wrote were intended to get customers to embrace revolutionary things like ATMs and online banking.
We also had to convert some skittish employees to accept new technologies. In the late 1980’s, for example, the bank launched a full-scale automation of its office systems. The word came down to all the secretaries: “We’re taking away your typewriters, and henceforth you will work on a computer.”
The outrage was instant and universal. “Take my typewriter? Never!” We might as well have asked them to swallow raw oysters.
I wrote a series of newsletter articles and the bank conducted workshops all designed to assure people that computers were cool. We didn’t make much of an impression. Then one of the brighter intellects in upper management came up with a smashing idea. He sent a memo to any and all that in each work area there would remain a few typewriters. If you needed one, it would be there for you to use.
You could almost hear a collective sigh of secretarial relief, and presto, the rebellion was calmed. (The token typewriters, I can report, did little more than gather dust.)
SENIORS, IN MY JUDGMENT, get a bum rap for being resistant to change, although I also believe it is true that the youngest generation takes to tech stuff more easily. That’s probably because most of them seem to come out of the womb already pressing buttons on some electronic gadget that beeps and buzzes. So it’s not surprising that many of us in geezerhood, when confounded by something on a computer or smart phone, don’t call a corporate helpline. We call a grandkid. But the reality is that people of all ages have difficulty with the latest electronic wrinkles. James Surowiecki, an engaging financial writer for the New Yorker whose last name I can neither pronounce nor spell without looking it up, put his finger on the problem that advancements create for many.
Mr. Surowiecki — who is 48 — writes, “Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, allowing us to do things more quickly and efficiently. But too often it seems to make things harder, leaving us with fifty-button remote controls, digital cameras with hundreds of mysterious features and book-length manuals, and cars with dashboard systems worthy of the space shuttle.”
As new breakthroughs come online, many of us are still trying to understand the electronic marvels of the present. One Sunday afternoon Mrs. R. was reading Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear, not surprising since Mrs. R. loves all things British.
But after a while she expressed some displeasure. “I should have read the first book in the series first,” she said. “There are too many names and places and whatnot that I don’t know in this one.” And, after a pause, “I think I’ll get the first one.”
“Alright,” I said, as I kept my attention on a televised golf tournament.
About ten minutes later I noticed Mrs. R. was still reading. “Aren’t you going to get the first book?” I asked.
“I did,” she said. “I’m reading it.”
I should explain. The book she was reading was not a hardcover or paperback. It was an e-book, and in a matter of a few moments, she had ordered the book, downloaded it from the source, and was reading it, all without even getting up from her comfortable chair. Thanks to wireless technology, the text had reached our wireless router in the spare bedroom and floated silently down the hall to her e-reader.
I’ve always found this wireless stuff all quite amazing. What next? I thought.
What next indeed. A few days later I came upon a book entitled The Physics of the Future by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku and realized far more amazing things awaited us in the not too distant offing. I wondered how long it would take people to adapt to some of the innovations he foresaw.
Dr. Kaku builds his case on the commonly accepted precept known as Moore’s Law. In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, expounded thusly: the speed of computers would double every 24 months (or 18 months depending upon which recounting of Silicon Valley history you read). He based this on his belief that the number of transistors that could be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit would double during that time period.
THE PRACTICAL RESULTS of this create comparisons that seem outlandish. “The Sony PlayStation of today which costs $300,” Dr. Kaku writes, “has the power of a military supercomputer of 1997, which cost millions of dollars.”
Dr. Kaku says that in 2012, when his book was published, the cost of computer chips varied from $30 or so to many hundreds of dollars. In the future, he says, the cost of a chip will fall to a single penny and chips will be literally everywhere.
Driverless cars, now being tested, will be standard. Talk on your cell all you want while on the road, or watch TV, or, what the heck, take a nap. Traffic
jams will be a thing of the past. Thanks to super high tech contact lenses, we will all have x-ray vision. (I don’t even want to go there.)
Medical science will be transformed. There will come a time when today’s standard cancer treatment, chemotherapy, will be viewed the same way today’s world views leeches of the past centuries. Instead of chemo, nanoparticles will be injected directly into the bloodstream, “delivering cancer fighting drugs directly to the cancer cells.”
We’ll be able to move things about with our minds. Forget to bring the salad forks to the table? No problem. Beam them in, Scottie.
Now the bad news. Dr. Kaku says that there is a limit to how much miniaturization can occur, and by mid-century Moore’s law will collapse. Chips, to paraphrase the song, will have gone about as fer as they can go. The implications for the economy are disastrous. If the computer of the future is no faster or better than the one we bought a few years ago, why buy a new one? In that case, Dr. Kaku says, Silicon Valley will become a rust belt and computer retailers will go out of business by the droves. What then?
Not to worry — every generation marvels at what scientists develop during its lifespan. But science continues to progress, so 100 or more years from now, humans will probably look back and think how old fashioned Dr. Kaku’s quaint predictions were.