Forty years ago, in 1969, Neil Armstrong left footprints on the surface of the moon. It was an extraordinary accomplishment.
Also in 1969, with much less fanfare and at much less expense, Len Kleinrock’s programmer Charley Kline sent the first message over ARPANET. (The message was “lo” – the first two letters of “login.” Then the system crashed.)
With forty years of hindsight, which of these events has had the greater impact? Unless you’re really big into Tang and Velcro, the answer is clear. From four computers in 1969, the Internet has grown to more than half a billion computers and more than a billion regular users, and is impacting every aspect of our lives.
“Exponentials R Us.” That’s the magic of computer science. It’s what differentiates us from all other fields. (To the extent that other fields are experiencing exponentials, it’s because of computer science – for example, the sensor technology and computational power that are driving biotech.) “Exponentials R Us” is the past, the present, and the future of computer science. If you think you can have greater impact doing something else, you’ve got your head wedged.
With that as context – as the single most important message – here are a few things that have been particularly cool in the past decade:
1. Search. Ten years ago, you would painstakingly organize things – label them and file them – so that you could find them. How 1990s! Today, you can search more than 500 Terabytes of the web (not to mention your own desktop) in 100 milliseconds.
2. Scalability. In the 1990s, Jeff Bezos’s smiling face appeared in advertisements for DEC multiprocessor servers, because the scalability of Amazon.com was limited by the size of the largest computer that DEC could build. Today, that’s laughable—we use hundreds of thousands of piece-of-junk computers running innovative software to create arbitrarily reliable, available, and scalable web services.
3. Digital media. Text. Music. Images. Video. All of it is digital. Downloaded and streamed. Seamlessly edited. With you at all times. Interactive. “It’s just bits.” It’s totally different.
4. Mobility. A decade ago, your mobile phone was a brick, and all you could do with it was make calls (if you were lucky!). Today, high-bandwidth connectivity to all of the world’s digital data is ubiquitous. Ain’t no escaping it, for better or for worse. … Next Page »
Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, where he also serves as the founding director of the University of Washington eScience Institute. His research and teaching concern the design, implementation, and analysis of high performance computing and communication systems, and the techniques and technologies of data-intensive discovery.
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