CS 481 - Trends in Computer Science

Week 7: History, pressures on innovation, and updating the RFP


This week we continue toward the final project for the term. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. History as a series of events with human triggers
  2. Historical factors that lead to innovation
  3. Review the for RFP so far, and decide on some changes

Let's start this week with another reference to Connections, by James Burke. Mr. Burke starts chapter ten in that book with a discussion that relates to this course. He asks why we look to the past when we wish to prepare for the future. We might reply that we look to the present as well, reviewing the efforts that people are currently undertaking to advance technology. His point is the basis for his book, that things happened in the past that we can examine and use to predict the future in similar circumstances. In his words, history is "a series of events triggered by recurring factors which manifest themselves as a product of human behavior". I think he means that if we examine history, we may determine that the pressure of human behaviors acted as a cause of particular kinds of innovation, and that similar human needs and resultant behaviors will trigger innovation again. By watching the technologies that the pressures act upon, we may be able to predict where an innovative use of technology is likely to occur.

Bell and FamilyBurke reviews several of his earlier discussions in the book, in which he described inventions across history that contributed to later inventions. His point in this chapter is that he was not describing direct chains of invention, but innovation and combination of technologies that happened because there was a human need that could be addressed by each of those innovative changes. He tells us that he believes that famous inventions are usually the result of someone improving on an older technology, or combining pieces of several technologies that produce a new useful item or method. He also believes that the pressure of commerce, the pressure of war, even the pressure of love can lead to a new innovation as a response to that pressure from human need and desire.

In the photo on the right, we see two people who were very important to a particular technological innovation. The gentleman on our right is the one you may have heard of. His name is Alexander Graham Bell. Mr. Bell was a very remarkable man, who developed a working telephone, which became and continues to become very important to our lives. He was also involved in research into flight, and other technologies. The link above takes you to an interesting article about his life and career, including some quotes from him that will strike you as being very prophetic. He was also a teacher of the deaf. That is how he described himself throughout his life. There is a reason for that.

The lady in the photograph is arguably the most important woman in the world, with regard to telephone technology. Her name is Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell. When she and Mr. Bell met, he was employed as a teacher of the deaf. Mabel Hubbard was one of his students. As you have guessed, they married, and the two little girls in the photo are their daughters. The technological benefits that Mr. Bell gave to the world, for which we will eternally owe him, grew from the fact that Mr. Bell loved Mrs. Bell. His work on the telephone, on a wireless telephone, on aeronautics, on everything he touched, grew from within him and from his love for her. We should be grateful to them both, and we should recognize the strength of purpose, of invention, of innovation that can come from the love someone can feel for the right person. Its strength as a factor of change varies from person to person. In some cases, it may be the strongest force at work in them and on them.

Burke lists several factors that have led to innovation in the past, which he expects to occur again in the future:

  • deliberate attempts to develop an innovation, as a response to a government action or to commercial or societal pressure
  • attempts to develop an innovation may turn up new discoveries that can, eventually, be used to develop a different innovation
  • an innovation can lead to a surplus of a resource, which can be used in a different innovation
  • someone may notice an aspect of a technology while reviewing it that leads to an observation that improves it or leads to an innovation in an unrelated technology
  • pressure from war or religion (or both) may cause someone to seek an innovation to do something better or to attain an advantage over an enemy
  • population changes may increase, decrease, or change markets, leading to a need to innovate a technology that supports that population

Information OverloadAnother point that Burke makes in this chapter is that change depends on the rate at which information can be obtained and passed on. It is not unreasonable to propose that we are living in the best of times in that regard, that information can be obtained more easily than ever before, and that it can be spread to a larger number of people than ever before, in whatever span of time you care to choose. There is, however, a problem with having too much information. How do you tell the good stuff from the clutter, when you are drowning in it?

We should all be able to feel the weight of the potential amount of information we could try to absorb from the media, the Internet, social networking, and traditional sources. We may also want to consider that many sources are doing less with more, that they are providing an introduction or an overview instead of a detailed view of any subject. News sources may provide teasers rather than in depth articles in order to cover more subjects and stories in a given space or time frame. This gives them a longer set of bullet points, but it does not give us the details that we would need to follow the examples in the third and fourth bullets above. We may have to do more digging in this information age than we thought we might.

With regard to this class, we can consider the information above to be both a set of opportunities to watch for, and a warning that such opportunities tend to change the world. We can participate in those changes, or we can be affected by them, but sometimes it is impossible to ignore them. Events that change the world are not that uncommon. They will happen whether we are ready or not. In case you have never heard of it, a book published in 1972, Future Shock, discussed the problems people have with being given too much change, or too many changes at once. The link I have provided goes to an article written forty years later, that points out some of the things the authors of that book got right and wrong. Predicting the future is not easy, so we can forgive the authors for missing a few details. Some of the things they got right, however, are useful in our discussions about technology. From the article behind the link, some quotes from the book:

  • Change is not merely necessary to life -- it is life.
  • Technology feeds on itself. Technology makes more technology possible.
  • The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.

We should decide how we must react to changes in order to choose how we may act to take advantage of them. First, we must be aware of them, and Burke's framework for recognizing change gives us a perspective to do so. We must be aware of the things that change our world, because once it changes, we must decide how we will change with it. When your world changes, recognize that change, and become what you must become to love it, live with it, use it, or be used by it.

Let's return to the RFP and see if we can apply some of our lessons to it. You should now have a copy of the business case for your RFP, as needed for your fictional company. You should also have created your list of technical requirements, which should help you to select the vendors from whom you would like to see proposals.

The RFP must be sent as an invitation or posted as one in trade documents, to solicit interest and replies from responsible, acceptable vendors. For the purposes of this class, we will take the first approach, which may be the more commonly used approach for technical problems and solutions. The cost of posting an advertisement as long as your project would be prohibitive, and might invite a number of unacceptable responses. We will take the approach that you will select some number of potential vendors. This list should be at least three companies who might be able to produce the product you wish to obtain. The lesson above may lead you to modify some aspects of your RFP.

  • Is the technology, as marketed by each vendor, being adapted to changing markets, government edict, or other human behavior pressures discussed by James Burke? Which one or ones will you ask about?
  • How will you score the responses from the vendors to the question above? We can't ask for their company secrets, but we can ask general questions about the direction their products are taking. We can and should have an idea about where they are going with their products, and what they see as the reasons for doing so.
  • Do we agree with the actions the vendors are taking, or do we interpret the forces on their product as coming from different pressures, requiring a different response for long term success?
  • Regarding the list of technical requirements, do you now have any concerns that would cause you to modify that list, based on the observations of Mr. Burke?