CS 481 - Trends in Computer Science

Week 9: Summing up


This week we finish the second major project, and take stock of where we are and where we are going. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Project goals for this week
  2. Innovations

The project goals for the second major project should all be met at this point. If you were actually sending your RFP to someone, this is the week you would do it. You should submit your group project to me this week, and we will go over it in class next week.

As I was preparing notes this week for a class I may teach next term, I was reminded of this class and the ideas we have explored from Mr. Burke. Do you know that wireless technology shows evidence of some of Mr. Burke's theories? I suppose that most technologies would, but I think we can find proof of his ideas most easily in newer technologies, those whose development is ongoing and whose history is not obscured by time.

In particular, I note that wireless networking shows signs of people making economical choices. I believe that technological developers must often take advantage of available resources, to use technology, to build on technology, and to find new uses for existing technology. Various uses of radio frequency energy are managed and licensed by government agencies, such as the FCC, but the frequency ranges used in Wi-Fi are not quite managed that way. There are regulations on their use, but the nature of the technology is such that it does not require licensing or fees to use it, as long as you stay within the guidelines about wattage and such. I believe this was intentional on the part of the regulators.

I believe that creating new forms of Wi-Fi in these bands was also intentional on the part of the developers. I think they did not want to incur the interest of a government agency that would require a license from them, but I also think it was because it was an open door that they could pass through in order to find their new technology. It was a technological opportunity that fit some of Mr. Burke's ideas that we discussed in week 7 about pressures that lead to innovation. Let's think about those ideas in terms of development of new ideas, regardless of what they are. This is how I see them applying to the development of wireless technology:

  • deliberate attempts to develop an innovation, as a response to a government action or to commercial or societal pressure - Let's develop here, because we can do so without being hindered.
  • attempts to develop an innovation may turn up new discoveries that can, eventually, be used to develop a different innovation - Let's find a number of things that work, and pick the best one to use next.
  • an innovation can lead to a surplus of a resource, which can be used in a different innovation - Let's use the available bandwidth, and make better use of it.
  • 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 - Let's find things that fit our technology and put them together to make it better.
  • 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 - Let's make it secure and safe to use for important things.
  • population changes may increase, decrease, or change markets, leading to a need to innovate a technology that supports that population - Let's make it affordable for our market.

Finding a new innovation can require persistence: the Edison labs would not have developed a working filament if they had given up after only a thousand tries. (Their demonstration lightbulb from Menlo Park is shown on the right.) But we all stand to benefit as much from being well informed as we do from being persistent. In chapter 10 of Connections, by James Burke, he mentions several inventions that were the result of unexpected outcomes in someone's research. The invention was often credited to the researcher for a good reason. Who else knew about the thing that was discovered during the research? How were any of us supposed to know?

There was no useful Internet before the 1980s, and it did not become interesting until the 1990s. It is now a place where we can find much that is useless, but that has always been the case with research in general. (Think about our friends at Edison's labs.) Scholarly journals, blogs, web sites, discussion groups, and other categorizations are all ways of looking at and digging through the huge amount of information available to most of us. We just have to look, to search, to understand, and to make the next connection. This is the innovation of our age that we should all use to our advantage. It may seem odd to those of you who were born in a world that includes our current Internet, but it did not always exist, and it did not always exist in this form. The services we use on it will change. There will be further innovation and evolution because people will cause those changes to take place. Learn what is coming, and learn to use it. We are still only in the beginning.

On another note, we need to be aware of our history. Many students roll their eyes and wonder why they are asked to learn technology that is decades or even centuries old. Those students often want to get on with the material that their world is made of. They are not noticing that their world is made of all of history. One of the points of the Saul Bass movie I pointed you to was the cartoon he called The Edifice. It shows in a humorous manner that all of our technology is built on what came before. If you don't recall it, or did not watch it before, take a look now.

We build on the past, so we should know what the past was before we add to it. Remember, the past includes everything from one second ago to as far back as anyone can tell us about. We need to know what was, and is, before we can add to it. We can benefit from learning more about things we don't know yet, whether those things are old, current, or under development. We need to do this to make innovative connections. We cannot make a connection between two technologies if we don't know they exist, or that they can exist. We can't do it if we don't know even one of them exists. The true innovator makes something new that causes the world to change, but that new thing is often a development from a history of many, many older things.

One of the lessons we learned from Future Shock was that we need to learn to learn. We need to continue learning just to be aware of the world, its problems, and our choices. We who choose to work in IT need to do this even more than the average person. What you may have learned from this course, along with everything else we shared, is that you will always have something to learn. It may be something new, or something old, but it will eventually connect to something that will be important to someone. Keep learning, and keep making connections.