Friday, November 25, 2011

OK Computer

My first encounter with an Apple computer was when I arrived on an American campus in 1992. Rows of beige colored boxes with six inch screens stared at me in the student center. A keyboard with a strange looking thing attached to it called "the mouse" completed the device. The moment the machine came on, I was greeted by a logo which had a smiley face on it. Within minutes I was in love with this state of the art technology. The rainbow colored apple shaped logo embossed on the bottom right hand corner was elegant and the floppy drive was an act of genius. Printing crisp fonts on an Apple Laserwriter was heavenly. I could not wait to tell my father about this experience. A printer by profession back in India, he was still running a letter press. I announced to him that within a few years printing technology would be undergoing a revolution. A few months later I took a class on how to use the internet. We had to master a range of commands on a computer terminal to access the network. My first download was a set of Pink Floyd lyrics using a browser called Mosaic. It was an act of pure magic.

As I write this entry on my paper thin MacBook Air laptop sitting in my yard with no wires attached, it is astonishing how far we have come from those wired days. As I watch my five year old sit around a table with two of her friends working an iPad as though she was born with it, I can barely imagine what else is in store for her down the road. In two decades computers have come to fit my palm and can talk back, so it seems the future is only going to be incrementally transformational.

One man, Steve Jobs, has been credited to have fast tracked computers to become as essential and rudimentary a component of our lives as a tooth brush. Though Microsoft took computers to every corner of the world, it was Apple that took it from the desk into our palms. Computers today have come to define our very being in the urban landscape. The internet, while still unequal in its access, has changed the way we socialize and communicate. As forecasters predict whats round the corner, one thing is certain, computers will force human evolution into areas even science fiction could not have imagined.

Steve Jobs' death this year was a moment that reverberated across the globe. People did not stop short of comparing him to Edison and Einstein. Magazines, books, documentaries and even feature film scripts were in the offering in abundance to put his life under a microscope. For an intensely private quirky person that he was, to have his life dissected in every news outlet was something of an onslaught. Steve Jobs with all his controversial, erratic and sometimes ego-maniacal behavior did solidify his place in recent history as a visionary. He not only built a successful company and some classy gadgets, he pretty much transformed how we watch, listen and transport entertainment and information forever. But he was no Einstein, maybe he was more of an Edison, but then again Edison was an inventor and a businessman, Steve Jobs was a relentless facilitator. An exceptionally motivated, gifted and driven person who could see his way through technology and design and come up with a product that could blow your mind.

Steve Jobs' passing was felt so widely and so emotionally because he had turned himself into an enigmatic, seemingly self-effacing Rockstar. The myth that had grown around him aided by his lavish product launches, shoes, black T-Shit and jeans and early experimentation with hallucinogenics, had truly reached Elvis proportions. His cancer added another layer and his age made it even more heart wrenching. Much like other Rockstars who died before their time and became cult figures, Steve Jobs' story had all the makings of a quintessential "Made in America" appeal.

Two other important people died this year who largely went unnoticed. They did more for computers and defined the world we live in than anybody could have imagined. They envisioned today's world even before Steve Jobs was conceived, but they were no Rockstars in the way most would like to see them. Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy created the building blocks or the DNA upon which all computers in the world function today. The digital devices that today have become fashion accessories, could not have existed without their seminal work. They in their unique respective way pictured our world decades ago that Steve Jobs in one sense made a reality.

Mathematicians by profession and passion both developed languages by which computers would talk to each other and perform complex calculations. McCarthy created a language called LISP, which is the second oldest high-level programming language that is still in use today. Ritchie created "C" which fundamentally changed the way computer programs are written. Much of all modern software is written in some modified version of that language. All Apple products run on a language called "Objective C" and Microsoft products co-opted C#. Ritchie then went on to create UNIX which forms the basis of all operating systems in all devices mobile or otherwise today.

Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy even though on a basic level worked on creating the digital matter that breathed life into microchips and peripheral hardware, they both shared a very different vision for the future. While Ritchie believed that the microcomputers such as laptops and hand held devices would be the way of the future, McCarthy dreamed of world of terminals remotely hooked up to large mainframe computers. With Cloud computing fast becoming the way of the future, it seems that McCarthy's vision is the one that will prevail. McCarthy also coined the term "Artificial Intelligence" as he was obsessed with making machines talk back, which again seems to be becoming a reality quite rapidly. Recently when the IBM computer "Watson" out did humans and won the popular American quiz show "Jeopardy" a gist of that vision was realized.

The idea of a thinking machine though is far from reach. While we can teach machines to make associations and extrapolate inferences based on statistical data, it is inconceivable to make a machine understand humor and other nuances of human emotion. John McCarthy did attempt to make a thinking machine but later gave up, not because he thought the technology was not there, but he said " we understand human mental processes only slightly better than a fish understands swimming". There in lies a mystery. While humans could create devices that could talk back and perform rudimentary functions that could make our lives convenient and comfortable, to create a robot that could feel, will always be the terrain of fictional fantasy.

Steve Jobs, Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy in their singular way left us a world that is both infinitely complex and simple at the same time. As a result of their work more and more intelligent machines are able to inhabit our world, and we are able to absorb technology and evolve with it quite effortlessly. We are only at the very beginning of that evolutionary process though. The unpredictable uncanny duplicitous nature of humanity to create beauty and cause calamity is ever present. Therefore as machines play significant roles in our lives, what will determine their influence is the extent to which we consciously allow them to intrude our lives. It is what it is.