Worlds of David Darling > Children's
Encyclopedia of Science > Computers of the Future > 2. Computers in
COMPUTERS OF THE FUTURE:
Intelligent Machines and Virtual Reality
a book in the Beyond 2000 series by David Darling
2. Computers in Your Life
If every computer and microprocessor
suddenly stopped working, our modern world would grind to a halt. All digital
watches and clocks would go blank, pocket calculators would be useless,
making a phone call would be impossible, aircraft would be grounded, banks
and most other companies would be unable to do business, and since computers
control the distribution of electricity from power stations, everything
that used electricity from such stations would stop working.
A World Without Computers
A washing machine that is controlled by a microprocessor can rinse and spin-dry
clothes in a number of ways. The chip holds a range of programs from which
we can select the washing cycle that best suits the particular load of laundry
we have put in. A washing machine designed without a microprocessor would
still get clothes clean. It would just not be able to offer as many options
for automatically controlling the way the laundry is washed.
|If required, onboard computers can direct
the takeoff, flight, and landing of a modern airliner, such as this
Boeing 747, without human help
In the same way, ovens, television sets, cars, and dozens of other machines
and gadgets have gained extra capabilities because of the information-processing
technology that is now built into them. But they would still work and do
perfectly good jobs if they were designed without chips. After all, most
of the machines that have an important effect on our lives today were invented
long before there were any microchips or before computers had become practical
enough for widespread use.
Likewise, phone networks and electric power networks don't have to be controlled
by computers. Banks, factories, offices, libraries, transport systems, and
emergency services could all be redesigned to carry on their work if computers
were no longer available.
So if computers are not strictly necessary for most of the jobs they do,
why do we bother to use them? The answer is that they make our lives easier.
They increase speed, efficiency, and choice in all sorts of human activities,
and they put us in control of vast amounts of new information.
There are also some present-day activities that would not be possible if
computers didn't exist. Among these are space exploration, satellite communications,
and many of the important new scanning procedures carried out in hospitals
to detect early signs of life-threatening diseases.
Revolution in the Home
Nowhere is the spectacular progress of computer technology more obvious
than in the home. In the mid-1970s, home or personal computers were available
only as kits for hobbyists. These computers were slow, and their memories
were so limited that they could not have stored more than a few pages of
text from this book. Yet, despite their limitations, the first home computers
did have one very important effect. They attracted the attention of thousands
of enthusiasts, some of whom became experts in producing imaginative software
– especially games software – for these new, miniature machines.
From these early beginnings stemmed the huge market for video games and
computer entertainment that exists today.
In comparison with the first kit computers, today's personal computers (PCs),
for use by individuals at home or at work, possess awesome power. In fact,
today's PCs are as fast, and have as much storage capacity, as the largest
computers of twenty years ago.
People now use PCs for countless applications in business, entertainment,
and education. Modern PCs can display information in fine detail on color
screens, presenting text, still images, animated cartoons, or video clips.
They can play spoken words, music, or any other sounds over loudspeakers.
The amount of information that PCs can handle has increased dramatically
through the development of CD-ROMs. These are compact disks, like music
CDs, that have been adapted to store information for use by computers. A
single CD-ROM can hold tends of millions of words, thousands of still pictures
and sound clips, and dozens of short sections of film. Today's PCs that
are equipped to handle sophisticated pictures and sounds stored on CD-ROMs
are known as multimedia computers.
In addition to having more powerful hardware, modern PCs are much more user-friendly
than computers were in the past. This means they can be used by almost anyone,
without the need to understand how a computer works. A person can choose
what to do next simply by pointing to an ICON or a small picture on the
screen with the help of a moveable device called a MOUSE.
Today, PCs are used in the home for everything from playing sophisticated
games to composing music. They are used to help people write letters, keep
accounts, guide amateur telescopes, learn foreign languages, and create
new kinds of art. This enormous number of potential computer applications
has produced demands for ever more powerful PCs. This, in turn, has spurred
further computer developments, since any company that comes up with a new,
faster processing chip or an improved package of software stands to earn
considerable profit. In the years ahead, PCs seem destined to progress to
the stage where they will play a central role in both our domestic and working
School's Out – Forever?
Imagine that instead of going to school you could have your favorite teachers
come to give you private lessons in the comfort of your own home. You could
ask them whatever questions you liked, work at the speed that suited you
best, and concentrate on the subjects that interested you most. To a limited
extent, future computers will be able to take on the role of expert tutors,
when and where the are needed.
In the early 1990s it became possible to quickly find information on almost
any topic by using an interactive encyclopedia on CD-ROM. And whereas an
ordinary encyclopedia offered just words and still pictures, a CD-ROM could
give you the option of watching a short video or listening to a sound clip
about your chosen topic. It also let you search quickly for details on a
particular subject or print out text or pictures for use in a project.
Now the Internet is used by many hundreds of millions of people everyday
for finding out whatever they want to know. PCs, laptop computers, and even
smart phones place much of the world’s information at your fingertips, so
that you can hold in your hand the equivalent of great libraries on any
Electronic books have become available allowing you to read a novel, for
instance, from a screen. Soon computers will be able to understand human
speech so well that keyboards are no longer needed. Eventually, personal
computers will be able to hold a conversation with you, so people may come
to think of them more as companions of friends than as mere machines.
To be able to study when and where you like by using a clever pocket tutor
sounds wonderful. But it is very unlikely that such a machine, by itself,
would be able to take the place of a schoolroom. Many of us already spend
a lot of time watching television and working or playing with computers.
Would it be good to encourage people to spend even longer periods staring
at a computer screen, without the human contact and discussions with friends
and teachers that a school environment allows? And is it really likely that,
given the opportunity, most children would choose to do schoolwork on their
computers rather than play games with them or go out with friends?
As time goes on, computers seem certain to play a more and more important
part in education. But instead of replacing human teachers, computers are
much more likely to provide extensions to traditional ways of learning and
new opportunities for students to express themselves.
|Storing Computer Data
The amount of information a computer can hold is measured in units
called BYTES – one byte being equivalent to a single character,
such as a letter or a digit. A computer's internal memory may have
a capacity of several billion bytes (gigabytes). Most of this is in
the form of hard disks which store data magnetically, in the same
way audio tapes store sounds. A hard disk uses a coating that contains
particles of iron oxide. These particles line up like compass needles
when a magnetic field is applied to them. The pattern of these particles
corresponds to the data stored on the disk.
|Hard disk devices contain several magnetic
disks spinning at 3,600 rpm (revolutions per minute) and read-write
heads to record data. The clearance between the head and the
disk is less than the size of a smoke particles. The capacity
of a disk unit can be tens of billions of bytes.
CD-ROMs store information in the form of tiny pits and blanks on the
shiny surface of 5-inch metal disks. By scanning the mirror-like surface,
a laser beam reads the data that is coded in the pattern of the pits
and blanks. CD-ROMs used to have the drawback that, once written on,
they could not be erased or overwritten. In other words, they could
not be used repeatedly for different purposes. A new kind of optical
disk was developed, however, that is erasable and can be written over
again and again.
The Everywhere Machines
The computer is an invention that, like the wheel, can be used in countless
ways. Computers help analyze pictures sent back by orbiting satellites so
that scientists can monitor Earth’s natural resources and environment. They
allow researchers to make forecasts about possible changes in the world's
climate caused by human activities.
|Fingerprints can now be stored in and compared
on a computer. Here an old paper copy of fingerprints is being scanned
to transfer the record to computer disk
Computers are used by the police to store information about convicted criminals;
to reconstruct the appearance of suspects, based on the evidence of witnesses;
and to identify patterns in the criminal activities of lawbreakers, especially
those who strike repeatedly within certain areas.
Computers that are designed to process images collected by small video cameras
are providing another tool in the fight against crime. When installed in
public places, such miniature video cameras are unnoticed, but they can
record everything that goes on in an area. If a crime is committed within
the camera's range, pictures of suspects are recorded. Using a computer,
these pictures can be compared with images in an electronic library of known
criminals, just as fingerprints are now compared. The computers can also
be used by police to track down new offenders. The same kind of surveillance
system can be used to identify employees entering a workplace and to monitor
the movements of confused or dangerous people in hospitals and prisons.
Soon, fraud involving credit cards and bank cards will shrink when people's
faces can be scanned and checked at the till or cash dispenser. And wanted
criminals will be intercepted at airports before they have the chance to
Computers are used by engineers to test the strength of new designs for
buildings and bridges. They let scientists analyze the results of experiments
or test theories about the nature of matter, about the properties of new
drugs, or about events at the beginning of the universe. Just as other machines
allow us to overcome the limitations of our bodies and muscles, so computers
act as powerful extensions of our brains.
However, many dangers arise as well as well from the expanding use of computers
in society. There is a fear that, because so much information on people
is now held on computers, it is becoming too easy for organizations to invade
our privacy. And, although computerized surveillance systems may help in
the fight against crime, in the wrong hands they could also be used to spy
Other problems might arise if the computer systems at the heart of major
public or military organizations were to develop flaws that went undetected.
Such systems may also be vulnerable to attack by people, known as "hackers,"
who crack the security codes of computers and then, in some cases, destroy
or steal important information stored on the computers' disks. In short,
our increasing reliance on computers brings many potential problems in addition
to great benefits.