"If the airlines had progressed as rapidly as this technology," mused Stanford University economist Edward Steinmuller, "the Concorde would be carrying half a million passengers at 20 million miles an hour for less than a penny apiece."
What Steinmuller meant was the technology of the information business, where progress is measured at a dizzy pace. There are electronic mailboxes, electronic answering services, electronic message centers, electronic file cabinets, electronic telephone directories and even electronic libraries.
Electronic typewriters correct spelling mistakes before mailing letters. Electronic telephones let the deaf "talk" to each other. Engineers in Long Island send electronic blueprints to their colleagues in Los Angeles. Sick children get their homework assignments and complete them electronically. sThe nation is on the threshold of the era of the smart machine.
Take the silicon chip, the tiny integrated circuit that's smaller than a fingernail and serves as the memory for thousands of small computers. Hook one to a telephone and the phone remembers hundreds of numbers that can be dialed with the push of one button.
Today's chips store a maximum of 64,000 bits of information. Next year, chips will be available that store 10 times that. By 1985, chips storing 1 million bits are expected to be in use. Computer scientist talk of putting up to 30 million bits on a single chip, almost 500 times the memory capacity of today's smartest chips.
There's also a political reason the smart machines are about to get smarter: the little-noticed decision recently by the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate computerized services at each end of the telephone line.
That decision allowed the nation's two biggest phone companies to sell those computer services, giving American Telephone & Telegraph and General Telephone their first chances to enter a business that's been dominated by computer companies like IBM.
"The FCC decision means there's going to be an explosion in this business, it's going to grow 10- or 20-fold in the next 15 years," AT&T Vice President William G. Sharwell said in an interview. "I think every business and every residence will someday be dependent on computer services."
The FCC took as much time reaching its decision as it has reaching any it made in the last 25 years. Before even forming a recommendation, the FCC staff went twice to the computer industry for its comments. The second inquiry brought more than 10,000 pages of industry comment. The FCC staff took five months writing its recommendation to the commission.
"In all my experience here," said Thomas Casey, deputy bureau chief of the common carrier division, "I have never seen another document get as much attention and time."
Casey said that if the FCC did not deregulate computer services at the ends of the phone lines, the FCC would be swamped with challenges and lawsuits. Casey said he also questioned the wisdom of regulating a business where innovation and improvement are so commonplace.
"Terminal equipment is getting smarter and smarter and smarter," Casey said. "How can you put a tariff on smartness? How do you measure the IQ of a telephone?"
In voting for deregulation, FCC Chairman Charles D. Ferris said he looked at the issue in the broadest possible way. He said he asked himself what might happen to the information business if the FCC put up a single new barricade to its growth.
"I concluded that it's better that the listeners, the viewers and the readers make the judgement who it is that provides them with their information," Ferris said in an interview. "I think they can certainly make the choices as well as seven people at the FCC."
Encouraged by the FCC decision, hundreds of companies are getting into the information business. The newcomers range from the smallest specialty computer firms to giants like IBM and Xerox.
Typical of the new unregulated services is the X10 to be offered by Xerox next year to speed the movement of paperwork between cities.
The X10 will link offices by rooftop microwave, beaming what's printed on paper to satellites that will relay the information in less than one second to rooftop antennas anywhere in the country. The X10 service will include "smart" copiers that pre-edit text for mistakes and a video service that transmits still photographs for what Xerox calls "teleconference" calls.
"We weren't sure about this business because we weren't sure we'd see black smoke or white smoke out of the FCC," said one Xerox official. "Now we see this business growing at a fantastic rate."
Computer experts believe the biggest impact of the FCC decision will be on the American home, where the telephone will be used to call up the latest news, hotel and restaurant reservations, language lessons for children and chest and backgammon classes for adults.
Bills will be paid by the transfer of bank funds by phone. People will be able to dial their home phones to warm or cool their house or just to check thermostat settings. They'll call home to turn on the oven before they leave work and after dinner be able to call out to retrieve the kinds of information that only libraries provide.
"Ways will be devised to pass charges along this information network just like the banks do with larger amounts of money," said one computer expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "This will allow 'Wizard of Oz' experts to earn a living just answering questions for customers."
The deregulation of enhanced telephone services has triggered some concerns.One is that the use of the telephone to transfer bank funds to pay bills may open it up to fraud and theft.
"If a store wanted to post a statement into my computer, I'd be happy to signal my bank to pay that bill," said MIT computer engineer Al Vazza. "On the other hand, I'm sure I want to give some third party the authority to withdraw funds from my bank account. There has to be some safeguard system in all this."
There's also the very real issue of privacy. Computerized telephone service offers businessmen unique opportunities to tap into competitors' files and banks, and insurance companies to peer over their customers' shoulders and into their private lives. How will the FCC regulate that?
"Regulation has nothing to do with this but I think this is one of the issues we should be focusing on," FCC Chairman Ferris said. "This is one of the really important questions for the years ahead."
Ferris thinks another issue that will have to be aired in the years ahead is the issue of electronic mail. Who gets to carry it? What happens to the Postal Service if business and private individuals make increasing use of computerized telephones to send electronic letters? Ferris is candid about how he feels the issue should be approached.
"Our feeling here is that the monopoly that's granted the Postal Service [via the Private Express Statute] to deliver hard copy can be maintained and should be," Ferris said. "However, I think you're going to see that we'll be getting more and more of our information electronically instead of handprint and there should be as many pathways to provide that service as possible."