Past, present, futureproofing

While it may be true that the Followers of Horus probably built the world's first 'computer' over 10,000 years ago on the banks of the Nile, most of us associate the birth of the computer with John Vincent Atanasoff.

While it may be true that the Followers of Horus probably built the world’s first "computer" over 10,000 years ago on the banks of the Nile, most of us associate the birth of the computer with John Vincent Atanasoff (pronounced Atanasoff), who built the world’s first digital computer at Iowa University in 1937.

(I know some will say that ENIAC was the first digital computer, but let's leave it at that.)

I contacted one of Dr Atanasoff’s friends and asked when the computer was first switched on, and discovered that it was June 13, making the digital computer industry a Gemini. The word Gemini comes from the word Gem, which is a hard colourful stone of little intrinsic value, the word In, which means "in", and the word I, which means "me" -- together it means that I’ve just swallowed my ring (those of you thinking of Uroborus should stop reading right now).

According to one expert, Geminis are fun-loving and intelligent, adaptable and versatile, communicative and witty, intellectual and elegant, and of course they are youthful and lively. However, be warned that they can be cunning and inquisitive, nervous and tense, superficial and inconstant. Finally, one has to be careful with Geminis because they do tend to suffer from multiple-personality disorder.

All this star gazing leads to one question: what do the heavens have lined up for the future of our industry?

Mystic Meg, the fortune teller who’s just set up residence on Petone beach (and I use the term beach loosely here), said the first thing to pop up was romance. The seer saw a dark, romantic figure waiting in the wings. Exactly whose wings was never certain, but I took it to mean somewhere dark, indistinct and feathery.

I wondered aloud if this could be the telecommunication’s industry tempting us with talk of integration, pervasive and wearable computing, and internet everywhere. The seer just smiled and said that this was unlikely.

Moving on through the continuum, the witch saw hard times on the near horizon. I assured her that this was probably just the South Island, but she put the evil eye on me and we investigated further. In an unusually precise statement for an astrologer she told me that I was sitting on her lap, and could I please move. Being a fat bastard I complied immediately -- my professional indemnity insurance doesn’t cover me for accidental breakage of old ladies, although I’d probably have been okay, because technically she is a witch and technically I’m still allowed burn her on a pyre.

Then we got on to the really juicy stuff. She told me that at the end of this decade we will have succeeded in creating an artificial life-form -- an AI.

She said that it will like kind people, roast lamb and baby possums. Turn-ons will include strong, silent men, who are a little insecure deep inside, and who know how to fix a garden fence. Its sexual preference will be undecided, but large groups playing naked Twister with copious amounts of olive oil and black bin-bags will feature prominently.

Turn-offs will be guys who press their noses when they fart, anyone who says "as you do" or uses exclamation marks, and those who don't put their braces on a line of their own (for those CIOs out there, this was a joke for programmers).

The oracle became concerned when she read in the distant future that around 30 years after AI is born the government will notice that it exists, realise that it’s been wasting time with outdated IT departments for a while, and will finally decide to implement e-government. She was concerned, she said, because this would be the first time an intelligent entity had control of any government IT system. This could ruin the economy, she said, because all the poor little IT companies who currently rent their IQ to the government for the price of a cup of coffee would finally go bust for want of a contract (one can identify these companies because their slogan is invariably some variant of "Please hire us or our children will stave").

Poor mad, old woman, doesn’t she realise that all the real money gets given to foreign consulting firms who instantly export it overseas (except for their taxes, which they’ll get back on the next contract anyway).

At the end of this prophetic hour she asked me a question. I was stumped for an answer, so I thought that I’d post it here, and let you answer it. "Given that war usually stimulates economic growth, and the fact that a large number of the biggest IT firms got that big because of military contracts, why is the IT industry crying about the US going to war with Iraq? And again, given that war stimulates the economy, why isn’t New Zealand joining in?"

Dollery is a partner at GreenPulse in Wellington.

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