By NAVEED GILANI
Haven’t we all heard stories form our dads or grandpas of how hard it was for them when they were growing up and how easy it was for us “modern” kids with all the conveniences in the world; that, it really sucked for them; and that, we ought to be mighty thankful; and for us to learn to appreciate all the good things we have. The standard story went something like this; “we had to walk fifteen miles to school through blazing sun and if not sun then rain, sleet, or snow depending on the season. And uphill, both ways”. It was always over 15 miles or thereabouts and always uphill and for added impact, often bare feet with one meal a day.
So, when it came time for me to give my, ‘how much better it is for you’ speech to my kids, I couldn’t stay with the old trope which had dutifully serviced the parents for over 4,000 years. My personal situation, while growing up, never took me through an arduous trek to school. In most towns where I lived I rode to school in a bus, or cycled and it was only in one town where I had to walk, that too only a few blocks, along a beautiful golf course, never in rain, snow, or sleet and the sun did not blaze that much either. During peak summer months, we were off on vacations. Times had finally changed and what was good for many millennia had now yielded to the spread of economic prosperity and the rise of the living standard. I still needed a story, a new story in-step with the modern times.
My improvised new story went something like this;
“you guys don’t know what it was like before there were calculators and computers. We had to use the slide rule to do the calculations in engineering school (for those who don’t know me, I am an engineer by training). Do you know what is a slide rule? It is a mechanical thingamajig which every engineering student from our era had to master to do any of the complex calculations; like raising a very large or infinitesimally small number with crazy number of decimal places to an equally complex number and decimal places”. The story further went on, “when the electronic calculators were finally invented we did not have any of the calculators that are now available to you modern kids. The first calculator that came out in my final year at engineering school was the size of a small brick made by Casio which could only do the basic arithmetic functions. The scientific calculators that followed cost the equivalent of 3 months of an engineer’s salary. And then later, when the computers peeked out we had these punch card machines for writing programs on cards which were then read in a card reading machine to get the program to spew anything meaningful. Personal computers that came later boasted a massive 64K RAM with a screen that was monochrome black showing a blinking ‘C’ prompt on the upper left corner; no excel, no word, no power point”. The story ended with the same punch line, “you can’t imagine how easy it is for you, it really sucked for us, you have all the conveniences in the world, and you should be very grateful and learn to appreciate all the good things you have”.
Granted that my story was a little circuitous but, like I said, these are the modern times. Though my kids often accuse me of a little embellishment but, cross my heart and hope to die, everything that I say is absolutely true. I still have my slide rule to prove it and not only that, I also have my “whiz wheel”, the circular slide rule that I used as a private pilot to plan many a flight paths.
Nael, my eldest son, who is into ‘big data analytics’ (whatever that means) will surely have to come up with a totally new version of the story when it is time for him to give his ‘how much better it is for you’ speech. The third millennium has dawned upon him after a long journey of small incremental changes through the beginning of time. As I look back in time I can honestly declare, what a journey it has been for us humans! In equal earnest, I can prophesize that tomorrow will look nothing like what we have known or learnt from before. The law of the jungle that governed us for thousands of years will no longer apply; it will be much saner for the global inhabitants, I am confident.
Since the invention of the printing press It took us a little over 550 years to put Neil Armstrong on the moon. And right about the same time Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, introduced us to his eponymous law that ‘overall processing power doubles every two years’. Today, Moore’s prescience is evident when I pack more computing power in my smartphone held in my back pocket than Apollo 11 had in its command module on board. Forty-eight years from that historic ‘small step for man giant leap for mankind’ we have come far. At the dawn of this third millennium, you better hold on to your hat before you look up the technological growth trajectory; it is rocketing up, up, and away; right out of the stratosphere.
“Beam me up Scotty” doesn’t sound fictitious anymore.
About a year ago, Kim, my wife, and I rode on a self-driving test vehicle in Dubai; on a normal road, alongside other vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists; crossing over intersections and going around objects. Had there been potholes in Dubai, it would have gone over them too. The speed wasn’t that great but even so, this vehicle was making millions of calculations every second. Each calculation had to do with the making of a decision required to safely move the vehicle forward. We disembarked safely after a 1.5 km ride. It occurred to me then that as the computing power, data storage, and data processing speed increases I, the insignificant human, am being ebbed out of the routine decision making. New and complex algorithms will make the decisions for me, better than me, and hopefully in my best interest. It is already beginning to happen each time I log onto the net. These intelligent algorithms are constantly at work updating themselves, learning about me, my habits, my preferences, my desires, and my secrets. Accordingly, I get prompted or redirected to where the algorithm thinks I ought to be. For now, not always in my best interest but soon it will change. It must!
Henceforth fasten your seatbelts Nael, it may be bumpy, you have fully entered Google territory, not Google the technology company rather Google the verb. More disruption expected; other verbs gaining momentum; Instagram, Skype, Netflix, Uber. More on the horizon. Watch out for driverless Uber.
Tailpiece: Did you know that in 2013 Google launched a biotech company called Calico that focuses on health, well-being, and longevity. They want to solve death. Bill Maris who is presiding over Google Venture, the venture capital arm of Google, said in an interview, ‘if you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500, the answer is yes’. Wonder if something akin to the Moore’s law will apply to our quest to cheat death; ‘overall life expectancy will increase by X percentage each decade’.