Contents of the 90SCOMPU.TXT file
Two stories from the Associated Press, 11-08-89
The '90s Computers
Revenge of the Channel Flippers: Computers Will Resemble TVs
EDITOR'S NOTE At a pace that quickens daily, the world is plunging into the ``information age.'' The following article, a sneak preview of the computers of the coming decade, is one of a periodic series, ``The '90s,'' looking ahead to the promise and peril of the upcoming decade, in the environment, medicine, technology and society.
By PETER COY
AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) Imagine what would happen if thousands of bright but bored Nintendo fanatics, Walkman freaks and TV channel flippers went to college and studied computer science.
What would happen is the personal computer of the 1990s a blend of 3-D television and quadraphonic stereo with the hand controls of a video game machine and more speed than car-sized mainframes of the 1980s.
Silicon chips burning through a billion instructions a second will be able to surround the user with the sights and sounds of an early morning in Paris or an erupting Hawaiian volcano.
``Multimedia'' computers will rival television for attention on a Tuesday night. More importantly, experts say, they will help educate the next generation of video-hungry schoolchildren.
A computer is the most patient teacher, which is why many students blossom when they practice math or spelling on it. Computers of the '90s will simulate a four-lane highway for driver's ed or a flask of hydrochloric acid for chemistry.
``You could have a tremendous exxlosion of human knowledge over the next decade. This could not only accelerate people's learning process but make a boatload of money,'' said William Zachmann, president of Canopus Research in Duxbury, Mass.
``Infotainment'' and other trends in computers are being propelled by a ceaseless decline in the price of computing power, a decline that opens up previously unimaginable possibilities.
Cheaper chips will add smarts to things people use every day, from toasters to the telephone system. They will become so common that people will stop remarking on them, the way people stopped talking about ``transistor'' radios once all radios had transistors.
In contrast to electricity, which is a powerful force of nature, computing is an abstraction. No one ever was killed on a golf course by a bolt of computing. But computers add capability to machinery, and in the 1990s they will extend the human reach in every field from weather forecasting to sex therapy.
``We increasingly call them people amplifiers,'' said Earl Joseph, a futurist who heads Anticipatory Sciences Inc. in St. Paul, Minn.
Any dependence can be dangerous, and the dangers from computers range from power failures and accidental bugs in the software to maliciously planted viruses and the ever-present threat of Big Brotherism.
Computer viruses are the social disease of technology and will be combated by limiting things that made computing fun in the 1980s, like sharing software and communicating in networks.
As for Big Brotherism, Los Alamos National Laboratory is exploring using brain-like ``neural networks'' for voice identification. That could allow computers to monitor phone networks and locate people by the calls they make, although that's not Los Alamos' intention.
Harvard University researchers are experimenting with similar machines that recognize faces. Theoretically they could be used in airports and bus terminals to search for enemies of the state again, not Harvard's intention.
Along with the threat of cold efficiency comes the threat of computer- aided blunders, as with the Michigan man who was arrested five times after a murder suspect stole his wallet and used his identification.
``There are two broad dangers,'' Massachusetts Institute of Technology sociologist Gary Marx has said. ``One is that the technologies work and the other is that they don't work.''
Stanford University's Terry Winograd tells the parable of a man who climbs out on a long limb that starts to shake. He has two choices: to invent an intricate, computer-controlled, limb-stabilizing system, or to wise up and get off the branch.
Too often, Winograd says, people fall in love with technology and forget the second option. Still, computers are here to stay. They will change life, mostly for the better, in the coming decade:
Machine translation of language will help put Americans in touch with the rest of the world. Computers already can crudely translate printed material, and automatic translation of live speech is on the way. But beware: One system in Europe translated the French ``nous avions'' (we were having) as ``us airplanes.''
Telerobots with human guidance will clean up crippled nuclear reactors and scour sclerotic arteries. Unlike their crude ancestors, they will be able to go about their work without moment-to-moment instructions. One unnerving possibility is military robots ``telegladiators'' that would lower the threshold of war by removing people from the battle scene.
Artificial intelligence is not going to create a human brain in silicon by the end of the 20th century. That dubious achievement may lie another century off. But spinoffs will be everywhere, such as an ``agent'' that scans data to assemble an electronic newspaper tailored to its boss's interests.
Computers will continue to take over unskilled jobs; society's challenge is to retrain those who are displaced to do more creative work. Joseph, the Minnesota futurist, is optimistic:
``The short-term displacement will be horrible. But the key word is cooperation, to make humanistic use of people. I think it's going to be one of the greatest decades.''
The '90s Computers
Question for the 1990s: Do You Trust Your Computer?
By PETER COY
AP Business Writer
How far can computers be trusted?
The question will become critical in the 1990s as society comes to depend even more on computers to monitor nuclear power plants, fly passenger aircraft, count ballots, move money around and watch out for nuclear attack.
It used to be said that computers do only what people tell them to do, but that is no longer the case.
The European-built Airbus A320, which will fly and land itself, is a safe plane that depends on computers for its safety.
Pilots can override the automatic pilot, but the computer will prevent any extreme maneuver that could damage the plane. Some veteran pilots worry the limitation could prevent them from taking heroic action to save live. Others say the automatic pilot is so good that pilots would be unprepared if it ever malfunctioned.
Computers contain the most sensitive information about people's lives from diseases to arrest records but they are notoriously susceptible to snooping.
A murder suspect was captured in California this year when Wells Fargo Bank helped police track him through the locations where he withdrew money from cash machines. In theory anyone could be tracked the same way.
``Everyone who uses a credit card, goes to the bank, visits a doctor, or owes money, depends on the personal integrity of data entry clerks, programmers, and systems personnel,'' Jane Robinett of Polytechnic University in New York wrote recently in Information Week.
Computer viruses are the latest scourge, but old-fashioned computer theft has not gone away. Election computers are unacceptably easy to break into, according to a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Things have gone so far that reducing dependence on computers would be difficult if not impossible.
In a serious accident at a modern nuclear power plant, more than 100 alarms can go off in the control room at once while dozens of red lights flash simultaneously indicating problems with pressures, temperatures and water levels.
Utilities are trying to cope with the ``Christmas tree problem'' with computer systems that will filter out low-priority alarms and identify what they figure to be the heart of a problem.
Operators will not have to take the computer's diagnosis for a fact: They can probe deeper to find out the data and assumptions that went into it. But in a red alert, with seconds ticking away and catastrophe possibly at hand, the person at the control panel may well just take the computer's word.
And pray that the computer is right.