Saturday, 08 July, 2006

Is all that computing power really wasted?

In 2001 I wrote, "we can store data, but where's the information?"  I was disappointed that, although we have all this computing power, it seemed nobody was taking full advantage of it.  I'm writing this today on a computer very similar to that I described in that article: a Dell notebook with a 2 GHz processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and a 60 gigabyte internal hard drive.  I have an external 160 gigabyte USB drive for backups and storage of stuff that I don't have to access every day, and another 250 gigabytes on a NAS that we use for shared data.

It's true that, even with all this fancy hardware, we still haven't solved the big problems.  The Traveling Salesman problem is still intractable, and we're no closer to speech recognition today than we were 20 years ago.  Faster processors and more memory don't make everything easier.  But lots of little problems have been solved.  Computers have made and continue to make our lives better in many different ways, and we do make use of all this computing horsepower.  Perhaps not full use, but not too many people do 100 MPH in their cars, either.

The Internet, even with the spam, phishing, viruses, porn, ugly Web pages, and other assorted junk really is a modern miracle.  With eBay, Craig's List, Amazon Auctions, and similar sites, you can buy or sell just about anything imaginable.  You can get a weather report for anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds, check movie schedules, or research any topic under the sun.  If it's known, you can probably find the answer on the Internet.  Jeff Duntemann's All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything is the Internet.  There's a little indexing problem that we haven't solved yet, but the information is there and with a little persistence you can find it.

The Internet also is the best mass communications medium ever devised.  With any home computer you can send and receive mail instantaneously or chat real-time.  Add a cheap headset and Web cam and you can have a video conference with somebody on the other side of the world.  Free!

It seems like everybody under the age of 30 has an iPod or some kind of MP3 player.  Forget the Sony Walkman or Discman.  For what one of those things used to cost, you can fill your 8 gigabyte MP3 player with 8,000 minutes of music--somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 songs.  Flash memory and computing cycles are just about good enough today to make portable video reasonable.  Within a year you'll be able to buy a good all-digital video camera (no tape) for under $1,000.  Figure one gigabyte per hour for VCR-quality (perhaps better) video.  (The privacy implications of this are another subject entirely.)  Put all your video and audio on your desktop or notebook hard drive and you have a general-purpose entertainment system.  Goodbye TV and stereo, and good riddance.

My little handheld GPS is a marvel.  With a one gigabyte flash card, I can carry maps of half the U.S. and almost instantly compute directions from where I am to wherever I want to be.  When the 2 GB micro-SD cards are available, I'll have maps of the entire country.  This is invaluable if you're traveling and need to find your way around a strange city.  It's also useful if you get turned around exploring the back country roads on your bicycle.  At home I can plan routes with the software on my computer, and when I get back from a trip I can download the tracks of where I've been.

Sure, I'd like my computer to continually scan the Internet looking for stuff that interests me, and there are times when I'd really like the ability to talk to my computer.  Maybe those things are coming in the future, and maybe not.  Either way, there's no reason to be disappointed by the lack of progress on the big problems or not recognize the many benefits that we gain today.  The power and capacity of home computers will continue to grow and we'll continue to squander most of those cycles, but that's okay because there are some applications that make use of all that power--infrequently, true, but you'd miss it if it wasn't there.