By the end of this decade, says British scientist Christopher Evans, computers will have rendered the printed word obsolete, revolutionized the educational establishment and radically altered our economic system. By the turn of this century, we will have begun to see the evolution of "ultra-intelligent machines" -- computers endowed with an intelligence transcending our own; machines that will, ultimately, help govern us. govern us.
The key to this golden age of computerdom will be the microprocessor -- a thin sliver of silicon etched with thousands of tiny logic circuits that can be programmed to figure sums, play chess, teach French or perform a host of other industrial, educational and recreational applications.
Is this vision just warmed-over science fiction? Well, yes and no -- but mostly yes. The late Mr. Evans' book may be marketed as nonfiction; but that is more by the grace of poetic license than truth-in-advertising.
The microprocessor, though, does exist and it is a truly marvelous bit of technology; you already find it in home computers, electronic games, cars, microwave ovens and all sorts of appliances. In fact, demand for these silicon chips currently outstrips supply.
But will the microprocessor, as Evans proposes, fundamentally alter our way of life anytime soon? Will the micro suddenly transform our perceptions of information and intelligence? These are serious and difficult questions. What Evans offers us is a jaunty, uncritical look at "what-ifs" as answers.
Which does not make "The Micro Millennium" a bad book. On the contrary, it is a wonderful read filled with British bite and flair -- but as a glimpse into a possible future, it needs less wide-eyed wonder and more cynical squint.
Evans has grown a little too fond of his technology; he's become an apostle of the computer revolution.
He writes, ". . . realizing that the problems of the world are moving out of our grasp we may shortly decide to look to our new companion, the computer, for a helping hand. When the limited powers of the human brain are stretched to the limit, our only option will be to turn to the limitless power of the machines for assistance. And the machines, slowly at first but ever so surely, will gather themselves together and oblige." No doubt, we humans need all the help we can get -- but will we turn to the computer to get it?
For one thing, most people are not nearly as trusting and enthusiastic about new technologies. Some people even fear and resent the depersonalization that computer systems tend to bring. Nasty political questions, as in the case of nuclear power, can quickly surface to challenge the rise of computer power. Business has learned that consumers don't always accept innovation as quickly as planned. The bottom line becomes whether consumers want certain changes at all.
For example, in one chapter, Evans sees "the death of the printed word," as computer memories and displays become so cheap and portable they will quickly replace newspapers and magazines as storehouses of information. Now really, do you think that The New York Times and The Washington Post are going to roll over and die with the coming of new media technologies? pNo way, they will adapt and improve their printed newspapers, and probably be stronger than ever.
And what would you rather do? Curl up in bed with a good book or curl up in bed with a video-display terminal?
There are questions and notions that Evans briefly squints at and dismisses as unimportant. Evans sees the surging tidal wave of computer technology overwhelming any resistance to it and washing away all doubt.
However, the human side of technology -- the way people choose to interact or cope with machines -- is never unimportant. Just because a "better way" exists doesn't mean that people will immediately embrace it. Just because a technology exists doesn't mean that society will adopt it. Evans' scenario may one day come true, but probably not in this century.
There are other problems with Evans' vision of the future. While the technology (the hardware) for the computer revolution exists, the computer programs (the software) that make using computers easy, fun and accessible do not. Historically, software development has always trailed hardware development. So what does Evans see as the software breakthrough?
Artificial intelligence. That's right. Evans predicts that computers will soon be programming themselves to interact with us humans. (When I mentioned this observation to one prominent artificial-intelligence researcher, he started laughing.)
Evans spends a good deal of time exploring the meaning and consequences of artificial intelligence in "The Micro Millennium" and offers his own observations into the nature of human and machine though, which are intriguing and worth a look. But the human brain is more than a bunch of neurons slapping together, and most computer scientists are more pessimistic about the short-run outlook for artificial intelligence now than they were 10 years ago.
Consequently, "The Micro Millenium" is thought-provoking, infuriating and challenging for people who have some knowledge of computers, and dazzling and shocking for those who don't. It's probably worth a look if you can get it at a discount.