We are Still in the Stone Age of Computing

Pardon the provocative claim, but I have to point out a few things that are too obvious to be noticed easily. I want to make a case for the observation that our immensely powerful computers, which are changing our society drastically as we speak, and which are already coming dangerously close to the end of Moore's Law, are by no means mature.

The machines that we have today, despite all the dazzling things they can do, despite the fact that the shrinking of silicon features is coming to an end, despite the fact that they are the glorious high point of a long evolution, are not the be all and end all of information processing. We have only just begun to dabble in information technology, and no one today can predict what "computing machinery" will mean in a thousand years from now. The only thing we can rely on is that they will be immensely more powerful than what we have today, and immensely more reliable.

But even if you don't believe in an inconceivable future, the immediate past offers substantial evidence. Moore's Law itself is a striking example. On the surface, it seems to document staggering advances in technology. But if you read it backwards, all these immense improvements, year after year after year, only mean that we started out really really small. We are at the very beginning.

And what about all the technological miracles that we can have today at the flick of a switch? That's a case of "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". If you read that backwards, it only means that we are easily impressed by technology. And we are easily impressed because we have not begun to grasp where the potential and the limits of this technology lie. Because we are still at the beginning.

But, you say, I do understand the technology: I can write programs and let the machine do exactly what I want! Yes you can. But if you read that backwards, it means that our knowledge about computers is still so limited that a single person can learn most of it in just a few years. That's another sign that our understanding of the matter is still quite incomplete. Other older disciplines are seeing a much more fine grained specialization of roles.

And finally, the most compelling point I can make: computer science is still so young that a great many of its recent inventions were made by single persons. In older fields, new discoveries are made by teams, or are the result of a long chain of incremental refinements by generations of researchers. This final point is my justification for the text you are reading. The justification for my arrogance in telling the multinational high tech companies that they could do certain things in a better way. I wouldn't be able to do that if computer science was a really mature kind of science.