PDAs still assistant wannabes

PDA - personal digital assistant. Must be one of the most pathetically over-reaching acronyms ever devised.

PDA – personal digital assistant. Must be one of the most pathetically over-reaching acronyms ever devised.

Personal, yes, inasmuch as they are carried about your person; digital, indeed, since they use digital technology and you may also find yourself stabbing at them with your fingers. But "assistant"? Oh, please. A Palm or an iPaq is an assistant about as much as a book is a storyteller or a TV is (as Homer Simpson once put it) a “friend, partner, secret lover”.

Some of us, however, have wanted these things to be more than that for a long time. Back in 1979, the most sophisticated pocket computing device was probably Hewlett-Packard’s HP67 programmable calculator, the fifth issue of Hewlett-Packard’s promotional magazine Personal Calculator Digest ran "Thank You, Beep", a piece of fiction by hardcore science fiction writer Gordon R Dickson. More or less devoid of plot and characterisation, it was more a vignette than a story, describing a businessman of the future taking a ride on a supersonic shuttle plane to attend a series of meetings. With him he carries Beep, a pocket-sized device not unlike an iPaq, but with the ability to recognise and generate natural language. Beep is also a communications device – it eavesdrops on the protagonist’s telephone conversations, recognises when he has made new appointments and adjusts his schedule accordingly. It also knows enough about his work habits, organisational needs and priorities to – completely autonomously – organise courier pick-ups of the materials he’ll need for his revised schedule of meetings and presentations. And then it explains to its owner what it has done.

Beep is faster, handier and smarter than nearly all human assistants, so much so that the question of why they don’t just send Beep to the protagonist’s meetings naturally springs to mind; nevertheless the vision of Dickson (who died last February) of a thoroughly networked world is almost as remarkable for 1979 as Beep itself. According to more recent speculation in Ray Kurweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines, if Moore’s Law continues to hold we can expect to be able to buy a processor with about as much power as a human brain sometime around 2020, at a cost of $US1000.

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