Thursday, February 16, 2012

1976: the prizewinning Lawless prophecy

See also my previous post.

After yesterday reading my own essay written 35 years ago, I was curious to know what would have beaten me into third place. I remember at the time having a keen interest in the matter. I see now that that the prizewinner, Harry Lawless, was having a bit of fun, pushing technology to the limit. He probably told me so at the time, during the winners’ reception. He certainly deserves high points for many accurate predictions, and I concede he was worthy of first place. But the Nineties was a too-near horizon for his prophetic vision. The judge, by the way, was James Burke, listed in Wikipedia as a science historian. He was in the group photo heading my previous post.

I've passed Harry’s essay through Microsoft Office Document Imaging (a brilliant piece of software in its own right) to convert it into the digitised text below.


THE NATIONAL SOFTWARE ASSOCIATION
CHAIRMAN’S ADDRESS
VENUE: THE ALBERT HALL, LONDON
DECEMBER 31, 1999
TIME: 7.30 for 8 pm


Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Members,

This is both a sad and joyous occasion for me. We are gathered here today for the Final Meeting of our Association and when we disperse many friendships made over the years will no longer contain the personal element that has proved so valuable to us in the past. However, I think we are all agreed that we must move with the times and in the coming decades we cannot continue to meet in the old-fashioned manner.

We have about us a wider society that is organised in ways scarcely comprehended in the 1970s. It is technologically a very highly organised society, and I’m proud to say without fear of contradiction, that the NSA was highly instrumental in bringing it about. We, more than most groups, must learn fully to integrate ourselves into it.

Pardon me, fellow members, if I allow myself the luxury of reminiscence on this auspicious occasion! When the age of electronic computers dawned in the mid-twentieth century our services rapidly became indispensable. The hardware had been invented and rapidly evolved. The machinery couldn’t speak our language so we had to learn to speak its language.

It was from these communication problems, fellow members, that our entire profession was to emerge.

I will not bore you with a recital of the early developments that led to the formation of our distinguished society—coding, assemblers, compilers etc, of which you are all aware. I will concentrate instead on the last two decades, for it was during that period that the real revolution occurred. It is difficult to place accurate dates on any of the changes or even to name the persons responsible for the Innovations, because they came so thick and fast and from so many people. I will merely outline the main developments that led to the creation of our present society.

The real beginning, I suppose, was the fruit of the researches of Pask, Michie et al. “Machine Intelligence” was the first label to be placed on those researches and, of course, it has since been renamed, more appropriately I think, as “adaptive machinery.” The early machines were primitive in the extreme, but they were soon to replace the even earlier “non-adaptive” machinery in a succession of generations. Such adaptive machines, as you will recall, were based on software engineering. Eventually they were to include all the software of the earlier machines within their hardware structure and much more besides. What is more, they became capable of modifying their own internal hardware structure in accordance with the demands made upon them by us mere humans. Parallel developments in micro-circuitry initially considerably reduced the physical size of hardware, but it soon became evident that this was not a valid constraint. It did become possible to create machinery that had a thousand times the computing ability of that ancient machine—ENIAC in a pin-head, but it became even more profitable to put billions of those pin-heads together and have the hardware do everything you wanted it to do.

We are now in the situation where hardware for the entire nation’s data processing needs are located in only four geographical centres and in each of those places, the machinery occupies only the space of a small room. Moreover, we are now quite free from what the pioneers used to call “bugs” and “system defaults.” Our systems have ample redundancy of circuitry within them, and when defects arise other circuits are used to circumvent the trouble. The machinery rapidly repairs itself and non-active circuits are soon restored. There is no single component or group of components that cannot thus be circumvented and nowhere in the entire system is there any indispensable element. The most recent development, which is one of the reasons for our meeting tonight, was the incorporation of the facility of auto-software-engineering into the system and, ladies and gentlemen, the machinery no longer needs our services.

Sensors were another important development. At first, the obvious sensors corresponding to our human senses wore incorporated, hearing, sight, taste, scent, and touch. but others were soon added. We all remember those halcyon days when we first could shout in stylised language at the machine and get it to do our bidding. Developing software for acoustic sensors tended to be a very noisy hut enjoyable affair, and we had other interesting problems arising from the other sensors—odours, for example, when a sensor tended to follow a young lady around instead of the rose it was expected to imprint. Radio sensors didn’t present too many problems though!

The development of sensors quickly led to improvements in automatons. These had existed previously, but apart from their industrial and military applications, they were largely scientific toys of the Grey Walter mode. Soon these devices were to be everywhere—in transport, in the factory and office, and in the home. Vehicles became load-carrying robots, and the house robot became indispensable. For a time they even began to rival the cat and the dog as a household pet—some wags even went as far as taking them “walkies” as far as the nearest public-house.

Despite such fads, automatons began to serve their human masters seriously in very many ways and almost every chore was soon to be undertaken by them, in a very short time such machines were linked in to the national data processing network and they developed all the attributes of intelligence. Micro-circuitry within such machines made them very responsive to their owner’s needs.

The National Data Processing Service was a real innovation. Gone were the metallic cable networks and with them the associated automatic and manual switchboards of yesteryear. In their place were glass fibre “channels” which via very compact laser assemblies and periodic light intensifiers, transmitted holographic information along millions of channels. In almost every home and manufacturer, input and output was to what used to be the centre of the passivity—the television monitor. Television, however underwent a complete transformation, and from the earlier devices that enabled one to play games on the cathode tube there developed a mass of circuitry which included microprocessors. and text decoders similar to the old Ceefax/Oracle systems. Additionally, thermal printers and radio control equipment were included, and every one of the machines were connected to the National Data Processing Service. Each machine was also equipped with NDPS sensors, and in the correct mode could execute oral commands.

We all know what this machinery is capable of doing, and indeed is doing every day in many locations. Orthodox television channels still exist, but a very wide choice is available because the data processing centres transmit round-the-clock programmes on something over 50 channels—full colour and in three dimensions. Programme production is no longer a problem because the DP centres select suitable images and audio and present them in meaningful sequences on an infinite number of themes. One can still play games on the tube, but with either a human or computer opponent, and once again a much wider variety is available. Calculations of all kinds can be done on the screen and hard copy is available via the thermal printer. The printer also produces newspapers and journals with full photographic illustration and colour.

One can also receive and send mail with full privacy due to the built-in “scrambling” facility. The audio telephone has ceased to exist and television communication is now the norm. Indeed, the camera using photographic emulsions is now an antique because the machinery will pick up TV transmissions from mini-cameras at any location, store the images, and reproduce them on the printing device.

The digital watch soon included a visual display which could patch into the network and enable personal communication to take place, and through the same link could display calculations too. All the controls on such “watches” were audio and each is imprinted with one’s own voice pattern in such a way that mimicry is of no avail.

In the home, office and factory, such machinery has full control over the automatons and these machines go about their mundane tasks with no human guidance — any malfunction .is automatically corrected. If special human requirements arise, then the automatic functions can be overruled on human command. All public transport, whether by air, rail, road or sea, or personal or communal, is now automatically guided. Even the different modes of travel have radically changed. “Rail,” for example, now consists of passenger and goods carrying vehicles moving rapidly on linear induction “lines”—floating on “magnetic rivers” at very high speeds. and transfer to “roads” presents no difficulties because every road surface has .similar induction rivers. Trans-world transportation is extremely rapid too, because air transport over great distances uses semi-orbital routes, and some of you gentlemen I understand are going home to places as far apart as Canada. and Australia tonight.

The social consequences have been immense. Monetary matters are taken care of by means of monetary credits and debits. Shopping is from the home and is truly international because your wives can select from any retail centre on the globe. Medical diagnosis is automatic because the machinery automatically surveys every human organism and monitors physical and mental health. The international centres take care of all things international—communications, for example, and patching in to international or inter-solar systems can be done at will by the user. Even the necessity for people to congregate for a specific purpose in public meetings is now obviated because of the further development of what used to be called “Confravision” we can stay at home and the machinery can induce into our brains the sensation of actually meeting. As the induction is simultaneous and common to us all, it is tantamount to actually meeting.

Unauthorised personnel cannot gain access to restricted “meetings”, but general meetings are available to anyone as we all know at election times, We can even record our votes in referenda and elections via the machinery, and meetings such as this can similarly record our feelings on any issue.

Because of this latter development and the fact that software construction is now taken care of by the adaptive machinery, your National Committee has decided that we need no longer meet in this old-fashioned style. We can meet In mutual communion at any time and no matter where we are.

So, ladies and gentlemen, we will not meet together in this fashion any more; this is our final meeting! When we disperse tonight, we will have finally given all responsibility for our function to the system and we have one consolation—if the system needs us, either individually or collectively then it will patch us in for our guidance.


PS I tried to trace Harry Lawless on Google. Do you think he could have been 45 in the photo above? If so, then it is possible that he passed away in 2008, aged 76. I found an obituary notice in his home town.

4 comments :

Michael Peverett said...

Hey, I'm so glad you've dug this out! this and your own piece. Marvellous period pieces - I love the way Harry accurately predicts eCommerce and yet envisages the speaker addressing an all-male audience, for whom shopping, of course, is something that is done by "your wives". Both of you seem to have been much preoccupied with self-adapting software. The error of emphasis, if it was an error, was to think of IT chiefly as an autonomous creative force rather than as an enabler of the latent human creativity that already existed. In those days, we tended to personify IT as some kind of demi-God, endlessly and marvellously fecund, yet whose very potency might prove indifferently lethal to our existence. There was much talk of its perils. Now, this debate has flagged, yet I often think that the perils implicit in both of your essays are just as pertinent as ever. Public debates don't stop because they are concluded, but just because everything has been said on the matter and people move on. I'm writing this on a computer in an office, and I feel alienated from the reality of the sun and from the people sitting near me. Contentedly alienated: that's what really alarms me!

Vincent said...

Yes, alarmed and contented at the same time, such is the angst with which we spice our comfortable existence, at the brink of a multi-faceted abyss. It was so simple then, just the Bomb.

Anyhow, Michael, there is still another essay to publish - the one which got second prize. Watch this space.

darev2005 said...

We're getting close, aren't we?

Vincent said...

Close to the abyss? I find that the head of course is alarmed. But the heart has found some bedrock certainty where moth and rust doth not corrupt. Sorry for the Jesus-quote. I don't mean it in a Christian way, not treasures in heaven - it's just that the Bible still resonates in my head.

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