The True Benefits of Computing

Welcome to part 3 of my 3 part series on how WPC gave us a “peek into the future.” If you missed it, parts 1 and 2 were posted here:

But this section is all about what really are The True Benefits of Computing!

A few years ago, CBS had a great show on called "Numb3rs." The premise of the show was a senior FBI agent had a brilliant brother who happened to be a Mathematics professor. Invariably, during the course of the show, some problem would arise - how to find a kidnapped child or how to track the movements of a terrorist - and the professor could come up with some algorithm or another to solve the case. Yes, I know it was only a TV show, but I deeply believe in the premise. I think there are a lot of problems – many perhaps less dramatic than those faced by the FBI - where the use of better algorithms could result in better outcomes. For example, millions of people still go to bed hungry every day. Not to oversimplify the problem, but what if better data analysis could improve the yield of farms by 5%, 10%, or maybe even 20%? If you take a 5,000 acre farm and when you fertilize the soil, don't you want to add exactly what the soil needs, not just what the fertilizer company wants to sell you? What if tractors had sensors in the front that could do real-time analysis of the soil, fast enough so that by the time the "fertilizer dispenser" goes over that same patch, it would increase or decrease the chemicals that it puts in to be a perfect match for what optimizes the growth of the intended crop? Or what about weather patterns? If you look into weather prediction, you find that it is mostly governed by a field of mathematics called Chaos Theory. In short, that just means that a small change in the initial conditions can lead to a big change in the outcome down the road. Therefore, collecting more data when a storm of 500 miles off the coast of Florida means we could more accurately predict where the storm will hit, and hopefully determine how bad it will hit. There are numerous other examples beyond farming and weather - financial models, scientific problems, medical issues - but, in the end, it all comes down to two words: Big Data.

But, if two words are too much for you, I'll shift it to only one word: Cloud. Aside from brand names (Windows 8, Office 365, etc.) perhaps the most heard non-preposition word of the conference was "Cloud" - and, in my opinion, for good reason. A heavier use of Cloud computing could help just about anyone, from students to business people. In the case of students, one of the big announcements the Microsoft made recently was that “With Office 365, schools get Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Lync Online and Office Web Apps at no cost.” If ever there was a good time to launch this program, it was now. With so many school getting there funding cut, I think this was a brilliant move on the part of Microsoft. Honestly, as far as I can see, there is only one HUGE drawback to this plan:

With Microsoft Office 365 for Education, no student will EVER again be able to claim their dog ate their homework!

But Students aren’t the only one to benefit – the cloud approach of Office 365 could help business people to enjoy more flexibility with where and when they work. As it happens, I’ve written this blog post on no less than 3 different computer, but saving it to my SkyDrive (which works much like DropBox or so that I can always pick up where I left off. Of course, because SkyDrive is from Microsoft, it integrates will into their Office Suite. In addition, there was a lot of talk at the conference about other, ancillary efforts, like SharePoint, Lync, and the newly acquired Yammer. In the end, at least from my observations of the conference, Cloud was Loud & Proud.

But I think that the true benefits of computing reach far beyond the concept of Cloud Computing. An even more basic, even more general value from computing, is the underlying principle of simply information sharing. As you look at all of human history, there are some breakthrough eras – times in which our entire species took a prompt jump up. I’d argue that perhaps one of the first ones was “pre-historic” (by definition) with the invention of a spoken language. While I’m sure some early forms of this was a bit like speaking to your teenager (“How was school today?” “Eh” “Was lunch good?” “Meh”), but it was a least the first big step – when people could start to EXPLAIN things so we could learn from other’s mistakes (“Where’s Grog?” “He took bath in the black goo” – later come to be known as the “Tar Pits”).

Perhaps obviously, the next big step was the evolution of a written language to further strengthen the power of the spoken language – so people could learn even if they couldn’t hear about the benefits of “not bathing in Tar Pits” first hand. Next stop on the sharing information train would be Gutenberg, and the invention of the printing press – through which the written word could be mass produced and distributed. This not only gave us much lower cost books, but also enabled the concept of a Newspaper for a daily update of what’s going on (sorry Town Crier). And the second to last stop is the age of “Radio Communications” – but perhaps it could be broken up into two parts – Radio & TV. With this jump, people don’t even need to wait for a Newspaper, they could get updates (literally) at near the speed of light – whether it was through Radio, or later TV – either one dramatically change the speed and breadth of how information could be shared.

And this brings us to the last era – computing – between the Internet, Email, Tweets, Facebook, and whatever is going to come next, more people can convey and receive more information, more quickly, than any time in our history. While this may be an obvious statement, the impact should not be overlooked. It could (but often doesn’t) radically improve how smart people can become and how much learning can occur. True, the web is full of less-than-noble activities, but it still holds great promise. Things like the Khan Academy, Codecademy, MIT Open Courseware, and many too many to list all the way out, the opportunity for people with a computer to “change their stars” (as said in the movie “A Knight's Tale”) is larger than ever. Look at Mark Zuckerberg – perhaps the poster child for what the power of a computer, some knowledge, and a passion can enable. But there are many others over the last 10 years (makers of Angry Birds, the self-taught programmer that started Instagram, etc.) that should make this upcoming generation of folks the most optimistic we’ve ever had.

And that, to me, is the true power of computer – to make the world a better place – to help work on big problems with super computers – to help every day individuals work more efficiently – and to allow us, as a species, to embark on this, the greatest era of information sharing the world has ever known. It is these things that make me happy and proud to work in the computing industry. But let me know below what you think: what are the greatest attribute of the computing age? How doing you think computing is making life better (or do you think it isn’t?) – please post a comment with your thoughts!

(or Eric Mantion, from Intel)

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