Envisioning the Future Technological Landscape

I recently read the well-written and prescient piece entitled As We May Think by Vannevar Bush, which was published in The Atlantic magazine in July of 1945. With World War II coming to a close, and with many physicists and engineers involved in the war effort, Bush outlines what he sees as the future work of physical scientists when they return to their “day jobs”. Many of his predictions concentrate on technological advancements. Reading it today, one is struck by how visionary this article has turned out to be (though it may be argued that some of the prophesies were self-fulfilling). It should be pointed out that this article was written before the discovery of the transistor, which Bardeen and Brattain discovered in 1947.

The most stunning of his predictions to my mind were the following:

  1. Personal computers
  2. Miniature storage capable of holding vast amounts of data (including encyclopedias)
  3. Something akin to digital photography, which he calls dry photography
  4. The internet and world wide web
  5. Speech recognition (though he foresaw people using this more widely than is currently used)
  6. Portable or easily accessible encyclopedias with hyperlinked text
  7. Keyboard- and mouse-controlled computers

Reading about how he saw the future makes it less surprising that Bush was Claude Shannon‘s thesis advisor. For those of you who don’t know, Shannon’s work gave rise to the field now known as information theory and also to the idea that one could use transistors (or binary logic/Boolean algebra) to implement numerical relationships. His ideas underpin the language of the modern computer.

It is amazing the clarity with which Bush saw the technological future. I heartily recommend the article as some eye-opening bedtime reading, if that makes sense.

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