Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Way the Future Was - Part 1

I will admit from the first that this title is a steal from the great science fiction writer Frederick Pohl, who in fact also has a blog with this title - it was also the title for his autobiography, which I have in paperback form. So credit where it is due, and here is a link to his blog.


However, this posting is isn't about science fiction, it is a report of the 1984 Mensa Conference at Cambridge, by Paul Johnson, and written up for "Thinks!", the Channel Island Mensa Magazine edited by Ken Webb, with assistant editor being myself.

In the early 1980s, the impact of the desktop PC was only starting to make inroads, with three main rivals - the IBM PC, the ACT Sirius, and the DEC Rainbow. The States of Jersey splashed out to get desktop computers on what was then quite a substantial number of managers desks, and of course, with the benefits of hindsight, the DEC Rainbow was not the way to go.

I was using a DEC PDP-11 Minicomputer, a machine the size of a small filing cabinet, and later on a Commodore 2000 (the business end of the Commodore range). Schools were using BBC Micros, and the small computer magazines were awash with a mass explosion of pcs, like the Orac (named after a computer in the TV show Blake's 7) and the Einstein. Father to these was Clive Sinclair with his ZX-81. Rather like the Cambrian explosion, there would be a mass extinction of all these models by the end of the decade.

Mensa at Cambridge looked to the year 2020, which is barely 8 years off. Amusingly, there was also a Medieval banquet! But how are the predictions doing?

Clive Sinclair is right about price, but that's about it.

Prestel (abbrev. from press telephone) was the brand name for the UK Post Office's Viewdata technology, an interactive videotex system developed during the late 1970s and commercially launched in 1979. It achieved a maximum of 90,000 subscribers in the UK and was eventually sold by BT in 1994.

The advent of the internet meant that centralised data stores, like Prestel or Compuserve, faded away and were replaced by a greater spread of data rather than centralisation. Home computers that teach and chat to the children were a staple of science fiction - Asimov has a short story called "The Fun they Had" in which a child wistfully imagines what it was like to be taught in classrooms. But it has turned out to be a pipe-dream, and while computer related educational resources are available - mostly often online - they are passive, written by human beings; there is no intelligent computer as educator.

Dr Madsen Pirie's guesses are also way out. Government, if anything, has become more intrusive and larger, rather than lessening and fading away. Most children are not taking degrees in their early teens, and people are not rocketing about. International travel has probably improved, but the security checks don't make it quite as easy as local commuting. But then who could have foreseen the rise of militant religious terrorism?

It's instructive to compare this with science fiction writer Robert Sheckley's "Prize of Peril" (1960), in which contestants compete in increasingly dangerous reality TV shows for the enjoyment of an audience which likes to watch people being put through what are exercises in sadism. Sheckley is extrapolating to make a point, but his view of human nature, jaundiced though it may be, produces a world much closer to our own than the utopian fantasies of Sinclair or Pirie.

Moulain was dark and intense, and chewed gum as he talked. "You'll do," he snapped. "But not for Hazard. You'll appear on Spills. It's a half-hour daytime show on Channel Three."
"Gee," said Raeder.
"Don't thank me. There's a thousand dollars if you win or place second, and a consolation prize of a hundred dollars if you lose. But that's not important."
"No, sir."
"Spills is a little show. The JBC network uses it as a testing ground. First and second-place winners on Spills move on to Emergency. The prizes are much bigger on Emergency."
"I know they are, sir."
"And if you do well on Emergency, there are the first-class thrill shows, like Hazard and Underwater Perils, with their nationwide coverage and enormous prizes. And then comes the really big time. How far you go is up to you."

I'm a Celebrity, anyone?

Report by Paul Johnson

A question that often arises about Mensa is "What do you do?" The answer is that "We Mensate". That is, we argue about any problem that takes our fancy. In the process, we exercise our minds and point out any holes in the thoughts of others. This is what Mensa at Cambridge is about. It was conceived five years ago by Professor Sir Clive Sinclair, Chairman of British Mensa, and has now become something of an institution.

In 1948, George Orwell looked ahead thirty six years in his book "1984", with a description of a totalitarian state. The date was not intended seriously; he merely transposed the last two digits of his own year. Despite this, Mensa at Cambridge also looked ahead thirty six years to 2020, with the general theme that we will have intelligent machines by then.

I am not writing about each lecture and discussion in detail. Transcripts will be available from International President Victor Serebriakoff, and further argument will no doubt appear in the British Mensa Journal. Instead this is a summary of the thoughts of each speaker, as well as a diary of the other events during the conference.

Although I am attempting to keep my own views out of this report, some of what is written stems from discussion with the speakers. As a result, coverage is uneven and reflects my personal interests more that the importance of the speakers' views.

31st July 1984

I arrived at Queens College, Cambridge at 1.50 p.m. Registration started at 2.00 p.m. with the signing up and the handing out of badges and room keys. The badges were holograms of an eye (symbolising Big Brother), with a tab stating the conference and the wearer's name.. We also had to fill in a questionnaire on our views of the future. After a cup of tea I went with three other delegates to hire costumes for the Medieval Banquet on 1st. August.

That evening,- an icebreaker party was thrown in the Queens College Old Hall, not that the ice needed breaking after the afternoons talking.

1st August

After breakfast, Sir Clive gave a lecture on the future of the computer. He estimated the number of synapses in the human brain at 10 to the 14th. Extrapolating the advances in computer technology since 1964, a computer of similar complexity in 2020 will cost the equivalent of £1,000.

He christened this device a "meta-computer". It will be-able to converse in English and will come to know intimately the family it "lives" with, teaching the children and advising on health, finance and law from a central Prestel style database.

Several members of the audience expressed fear about a computer educating the children and advising on health care but Sir Clive pointed out that the computer will do these jobs far better than a human can, and there will be no need for children to stop socialising because they no longer learn at school.

After an excellent buffet lunch, Dr Madsen Pirie described his predictions about life as a whole in 2020. He said that the broad economic trend on 2% growth per annum will continue and that "doomwatch" predictions are wrong. He then concentrated on trying to predict the society of 2020.

Family life will lessen; there will still be one house to one family but individual members will be more independent. Britain will have become a sub-contracting society, with firms of two to six people employing other firms to do specialised jobs.

For instance a car manufacturer will employ firms of researchers, designers, technicians, and eventually salesmen when launching a new car. Thus the employer-employee relationship we know today will fade away, to be replaced with clear contractual obligations up and down.

There will be a number of new sports, mostly connected with flying, children will be taking first degrees in their early teens thanks to the educational computers, and international travel will be as easy as local commuting.

The government will fade away as there ceases to be anything for it to govern. Local communities will look after their own affairs.

That evening the Medieval Feast was held in the Old Hall. Roughly half the delegates had hired period costume, giving a genuine atmosphere to the proceedings. Entertainment was provided by a quartet of close harmony singers. Sir Clive wore his scholar's robes, Victor Serebriakoff looked like Falstaff, and I went as court jester, complete with six inch nose and wry-necked fife (Distant Recorder) with which I made a complete fool of myself. We ate without forks, admired the serving wenches and got drunk on mead.


Anonymous said...

Please get back to posting stuff about Jersey. e.g. on the hijacked commission, the pay offs, the Power suspension, etc etc.
No offence, but most of us don't have much time for reading and we need to focus on Jersey stuff while things are ,,,,,,,like they are.

I'm sorry I need to be a selective reader. Its not that I don't want to read your other stuff, I do sometimes. Just right now, time is vey precious and needs to focus on democracy, transparency, justice. Stuff Jersey isnt very good at.
Blogs wil change that if we can unite and mobilise.
GOod luck with all you do and thank you.

Thank you .

TonyTheProf said...

I have a recent posting on the Election Reforms. But two things to note:

1) I have a diverse range of subjects; I don't want this blog to bore by just addressing a limited range of subjects.
2) I have to have something new to say. "I don't like that" or rhetoric about corruption simply won't wash; I need to write something to engage and persuade the reader, not just sound off.