Welcome to the final post of my three-part series on how WPC gave us a peek into the future. If you missed it, parts one and two are posted here:
But this section is all about The True Benefits of Computing!
A few years ago, CBS had a great show on called "Numb3rs." The premise was that a senior FBI agent had a brilliant brother who happened to be a mathematics professor. Invariably, during the course of the show, some problem would arise—how to find a kidnapped child or how to track the movements of a terrorist—and the professor would come up with some algorithm to solve the case.
Yes, I know it was only a TV show, but I deeply believe in the premise. I think there are a lot of problems—many perhaps less melodramatic than those faced on primetime television—where the use of better algorithms could deliver better outcomes. For example, millions of people still go to bed hungry every day. Not to oversimplify the problem, but what if better data analysis could improve the yield of farms by five percent, 10 percent, or even 20? If you fertilize the soil of a 5,000-acre farm, don’t you want to add exactly what the soil needs—not just what the fertilizer company wants to sell you? What if tractors had sensors that could do real-time analysis of the soil, fast enough so that by the time the fertilizer dispenser goes over that same patch, it knows the perfect amount of chemicals needed to create optimum growth for the specific crop desired? Or what about weather patterns? If you look into weather prediction, you find that it’s mostly governed by a field of mathematics called chaos theory. In short, this means that a small change in initial conditions can lead to a big change in the outcome down the road. Therefore, by collecting data early on when a storm is 500 miles off the coast of Florida, we can more accurately predict where the storm will hit, and hopefully determine how bad it will hit so we can be better prepared and minimize damage.
There are numerous other examples beyond farming and weather—financial models, scientific problems, medical issues—but in the end it all comes down to two words: Big Data.
But, if two words are too much for you, how about just one: cloud. Aside from brand names (Windows 8, Office 365, etc.) perhaps the most-heard word at the conference was "cloud"— and for good reason. A heavier use of cloud computing could help just about anyone, from students to business people. In the case of students, one of the big announcements that Microsoft made recently was that “with Office 365, schools get Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Lync Online and Office Web Apps at no cost.” If ever there was a good time to launch this program, it’s now. With so many schools getting their funding cut, this was a brilliant move on the part of Microsoft. As far as I can see, there is only one HUGE drawback to this plan:
With Microsoft Office 365 for education, no student will EVER be able to claim their dog ate their homework in the future!
But students aren’t the only ones to benefit. The cloud approach of Office 365 could help business people enjoy more flexibility as far as where and when they work. As it happens, I’ve written this blog post on no less than three different computers by saving it to my SkyDrive so that I can pick up where I left off, no matter where I am. Of course, because SkyDrive is from Microsoft, it integrates well into their Office suite. In addition, there was a lot of talk at the conference about other, ancillary efforts, like SharePoint, Lync, and the newly acquired Yammer. In the end, at least from my observations of the conference, cloud was loud and proud.
But I think that the true benefits of computing reach far beyond the concept of cloud computing. An even more basic, even more general value from computing is the underlying principle of simply information sharing. As you look at all of human history, there are some breakthrough eras—times in which our entire species took a prompt jump up. I’d argue that perhaps one of the first ones was prehistoric (by definition) with the invention of a spoken language. I’m sure some early forms of this were a bit like speaking to your teenager (“How was school today?” “Eh.” “Was lunch good?” “Meh.”), but it was at least the first big step when people could start to explain things so we could learn from other’s mistakes. (“Where’s Grog?” “He took bath in the black goo” – later to be known as the tar pits.)
Perhaps obviously, the next big step was the evolution of a written language to further strengthen the power of the spoken language so people could learn benefits of not bathing in tar pits, even if they couldn’t hear about the first hand. Next stop on the sharing information train would be Gutenberg, and the invention of the printing press, through which the written word could be mass produced and distributed. This not only gave us much lower-cost books, but also enabled the concept of a newspaper for a daily update of what’s going on (sorry, town crier). And the second-to-last stop is the age of radio communications. This can be broken up into two parts: radio and TV. With this jump, people didn’t even need to wait for a newspaper; they could get updates (literally) at near the speed of light. Whether it was through radio, or later TV, both dramatically changed the speed and breadth of how information could be shared.
And this brings us to the last era—computing. Between the Internet, email, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever is going to come next, more people can convey and receive more information, more quickly, than any other time in our history. While this may be an obvious statement, the impact should not be overlooked. It could (but often doesn’t) radically improve how smart people can become and how much learning can occur. True, the Web hosts a fair share of less-than-noble pursuits, but it still holds great promise. With things like the Khan Academy, Codecademy, MIT Open Courseware, and many (too many to list) others, the opportunity for people with a computer to “change their stars” (as said in the movie “A Knight’s Tale”) is larger than ever. Look at Mark Zuckerberg—perhaps the poster child for what the power of a computer, some knowledge, and a passion can enable. But there are many others over the last 10 years (makers of Angry Birds, the self-taught programmer that started Instagram, etc.) that should make this upcoming generation of folks the most optimistic we’ve ever had.
And that, to me, is the true power of computing—to make the world a better place. To help work on big problems with super computers. To help everyday individuals work more efficiently. And to allow us, as a species, to embark on this, the greatest era of information-sharing the world has ever known. It is these things that make me happy and proud to work in the computing industry. Let me know what you think. What are the greatest attributes of the computing age? How do you think computing is making life better? Or do you think it isn’t? Please post a comment with your thoughts!