C8 The Next Computer


This short chapter starts by looking at some new forms of computer.  Four types of computer are described: the functional computer, the neural network computer, the quantum computer and the DNA computer. The functional computer is one where the programs are expressed using a form of mathematical language. The ideas were popular in the seventies but went into abeyance. The availability of multiprocessor chips has brought them to the fore again. The neural net computer is based on a form of computer learning where the software is trained to find common aspects of some major collections of data. Both the DNA computer and the quantum computer are for the future. They are both the subject of research. If the research is successful they will have a major effect in terms of computational power.

The chapter concludes by looking at three rather dystopic views of the future of the computer expressed by Jonathan Zittrain, Nicholas Carr and Tim Yu. Zittrain has major worries about the computer being tethered, with users of the Internet only being allowed access to some facilities at the behest of major organisations. Yu follows the same path but uses a historical context. Carr’s work is in a number of senses dystopic but he comes from a commercial background. His books point towards the cloud computing future that Chapter 7 alludes to. A future that Yu and Zittrain have expressed worries about. In this sense perhaps some of Carr’s work should be regarded as an indirect dystopic vision of the future.

Chapter Links

  • This is a good introduction to how quantum computers work.
  • I am not a biologist so I had to research a number of sites for the DNA computer section. These are some of the ones I found useful. First an expanded description of Adelman’s work. Second a description from Wired of the Adelman experiment. Third a well-written introduction. Fourth a good introduction to how DNA computers work. This is the best description I have come across.
  • The brief description of how a DNA computer works for any problem is a generic description that covers most of the DNA computers that have been developed where genetic coding is used, mixing occurs and chemical  reactions extract out a result or a set of results. For example the description could be applied to the solution of cryptographic codes.
  • This is Nicholas Carr’s first book Does IT Matter, his second book  The Big Switch carries on from this and looks at computing as a utility, comparing its growth with that of the electricity industry. I highly recommend both.
  • Jonathan Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet can be found in Amazon here.
  • One of the major issues in computing will be that of open vs. closed systems. In this chapter I talk about closed devices which provide some access to the Internet which is mediated by its manufacturer, for example you can only access the Internet via the browser provided or via an application (app) that has been approved by the manufacturer; this is in contrast to PCs manufactured by companies such as Dell or Acer where the user can make choices about greater access, for example what operating system to use (Linux or Windows) what browser(s) or what email client(s). The last year has seen an explosion of devices known as tablet computers, the iPad is an example of one and the Motorola Xoom is another example. A number of tablets use free software developed by Google known as the Android operating system. There is a degree of freedom here in that anyone can develop an app for an Android tablet and use it on their computer. There will be a major battle here with the proponents of the iPad pointing out that a closed system gives you quality products, while open system proponents such as Zittrain will deploy arguments about creativity. It is worth pointing out though to the knockers of Apple that they are a hybrid company sellling both closed and open systems (their laptops and desktop computers, for example). The debate is worth looking out for. Where do I stand on the debate between open and closed systems? Well here are the advantages of a closed system: they are secure, no viruses for example; they start up very quickly compared with my laptop; and for a large number of users they represent all they want from a computer: browsing, Facebook, email etc. On the other hand there is a possible future vision of control described by Zittrain. I stand in the middle as an agnostic. (Disclosure: I own both a closed tablet: the iPad1 and an open tablet: a Motorola Xoom.) The future will be really interesting and I’m not predicting it: I have been wrong plenty of times before!

Blog Posts

The Computer as a Utility

In the book I describe the work of Nicholas Carr. One of his books The Big Switch describes how computing is becoming a utility just like the gas and electricity supply. My wife is addicted to programs that take a couple house hunting in the UK or abroad and follows them on their viewing (I’ve yet to find someone actually buy a house). Until a couple of years ago one of the common questions that was asked of a house was: does it have broadband? Recently I’ve noticed that this question is infrequently posed. The reason, I suspect, is that buyers now assume that broadband is on tap in the same way that electricity and gas is on tap. During October 2011 two events occurred that illustrated how much computing has become a utility. The first was a breakdown in the BT Internet network.  The second was an outage in the network that supported the very popular Blackberry smartphone. What was clear from the consumer reaction to these events was how much business relies on computing as a utility.

ICS – An Example of a Recent Failed Project

In Chapter 8 I briefly mentioned some computer project failures. It is worth expanding on what I wrote using an example that I am very familiar with. The previous Labour government mandated a computer system for social workers which kept records of their interaction with a child in need, their family and agencies such as the police.  The system, known as the Integrated Children’s system (ICS), consisted of a series of processes that social workers had to carry out and a computer system to support this. There were, in fact, a number of computer systems that children’s departments could purchase.

There were major problems with ICS. The main one was that it chained children’s social workers to their desks for as much as 85% of their time and prevented them from visiting children and their families.  There have been a number of articles dealing with ICS, here is one and here is another.

The developers implemented exactly what the government wanted, they cannot be blamed. However, the problem was that the customer (the previous Labour government) had a view of social work that was at variance with actual practice; effectively they regarded it as an industrial or commercial enterprise that could be codified.

I was asked to join a government review of children’s care (the Munro Review) concentrating on the IT aspects and the review came to the conclusion that much simplified systems were needed-this is now happening.  The ICS project illustrated something that I think has gradually happened over the last twenty years:  that problems with computer-based projects have morphed from technical ones based on the inadequate technologies to problems that arise from customer issues; for example an inadequate vision of what a system should do and how it should interact with its users. This is clear from the problems with the British National Health IT system which has recently been drastically scaled back. If you are interested in project failure, this article describes quite a few; most of them arise from the problem I describe in this paragraph: an inadequate view of the people who use a system.

Jonathan Zittrain –  Where do I Stand?

I was asked recently about Jonathan Zittrain’s views detailed in his book The Future of the Internet. I describe his work along with others as a sort of dystopic coda to my book.  I felt that there were so many gee whizzery things in the book that there was a need to address some of the potential downsides.

Zittrain’s message is that issues such as security and privacy have led to a pressure that has led to the development of closed devices that are under the control of their manufacturer in that if you wanted to make any changes to the software and implement new applications then it has to be under the control of the manufacture.  This he states could lead to the Internet being a closed entity and the spirit of invention that gave rise to the World Wide Web being stifled.

I am an agnostic on this. For example, Apple is often cited as an example of a company that manufactures closed devices (Don’t forget they also manufacture open devices such as their laptop and desktop computers) and seem to have a liberal view of what applications to allow on their iPhone and iPad; and there are also many open devices on the market (Any PC, for example). Clearly there are major plusses in buying a closed device: better security, better privacy and better quality applications, but there are a number of authors such as Tim Wu and Zittrain who point to possible dystopic futures.

So I am waiting and seeing. The tussle between products such as the iPad and the Android-based tablet computers will, I think, clarify the issues.

The Next Home Computer?

I know it’s foolish to predict the future but very occasionally I try to. My desktop computer is becoming aged and I am starting to think about its replacement.  I came across this Asus EeePad computer. It is a sort of hybrid netbook/tablet computer which can be augmented with a keyboard and a docking station. The computer runs the Android operating system and, I believe, can have a mouse attached to it.  Here’s a review.

If you are the sort of user who: browses the Internet, uses social computing sites, sends and receives emails and have relatively low level word processing and spread-sheet requirements then I suspect that this computer and any similar future computers will replace the big box under your feet.  It is also based on the cloud concept. It could even replace the conventional laptop since it is quite light and has a screen-based keyboard. (Disclosure: I have no connections at all any company that manufactures or sells this computer).

The Dumb Terminal

One of Nicholas Carr’s predictions concerns the future where the cloud computing idea that I outline in Chapter 7 leads to a world where most users will communicate with the Internet using a computer just associated with a browser – this can lead to issues about central control that authors such as Jonathan Zittrain discuss. In this way I would class him with other dystopians-albeit an accidental dystopian-that I describe in Chapter 8. A difference is that Carr flies in from a commercial viewpoint.

It is worth saying that when I refer to a computer as a ‘dumb terminal’ in my book what I refer to is a computer with minimal or no file storage and a small operating system where access to the outside world is solely via some web browsing program. The term ‘dumb’ refers to the fact that there is very little processor intelligence required outside that of running a browser. Here’s Carr on this topic:

‘But once utility services mature, the idea of getting rid of your PC will become more and more attractive. At that point, each of us will have access to virtually unlimited online storage as well as a rich array of software services … Having our files and software locked into our PC’s hard drive will be an unnecessary nuisance. Companies like Google and Yahoo will likely be eager to supply us with all-purpose utility services … for free. We may find, twenty or so years from now, that the personal computer has become a museum piece, a reminder of a curious time when all of us were forced to be amateur computer technicians.’

Here is another aspect of Carr’s Big Switch vision; this time being pessimism about job prospects.

An Argument for Closed Systems

In this chapter of the book I discuss the work of Jonathan Zittrain. One of Zittrain’s key points is that closed systems have the potential to stifle the creativity that, for example, gave birth to the World Wide Web. He also points out that closed systems do have their advantages, for example they are very secure. Here’s an example of a problem with open systems: the BBC report of Trojan horse software targeting smartphones. Here is a problem and also a commercial opportunity for companies such as Kaspersky and McAfee to develop smartphone analogues of their successful PC virus software.  This is an excellent site for computer security advice.
Update: on the 8th Nov the BBC reported that the Apple’s app store had malware inserted into it. It seems that Apple had slightly relaxed its conditions so that existing apps could have non-approved code added to them. This incident is again an argument for a closed system. I suspect that Apple will not be relaxing any more conditions and may even rollback the rule that was relaxed.

Android Downloads Increasing

In a blog post Google announced a major increase in downloads of apps for its Android operating system. The BBC also featured this. One of the points made in the BBC item by Carolina Milanesi is that of the problem with open systems that closed systems do not have: that of quality and curation.

An Example of Creativity

Here’s an example of the sort of creativity that I talk about in the final chapter. It’s an application that allows anyone with a phone that has a microphone to develop oral histories.

Disclosure: I have nothing to do with the company whose link is above.

Jail Breaks and Apple

One of the tensions that I describe in the final chapter of the book is that between open and closed systems. Each has their advantages and I am an agnostic on this topic. I did, however, come across an interesting article on jail breaking on the BBC web site. The term is used to describe the process of opening up a closed system such as an iPhone in order to run applications that are disallowed.

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