In This Issue
The Future of Computing
March 1, 2003 Volume 33 Issue 1

The Future of Computing (editorial)

Saturday, March 1, 2003

Author: Wm. A. Wulf

As many of you know, my field is computers. I wrote my first computer program in 1960 for the Illiac I - a one-of-a-kind computer built at the University of Illinois in the 1950s. I sent my first transcontinental email in about 1972, and by the mid-1970s I was involved in an active, email-enabled research project with a colleague 2,000 miles away. In short, for more than 40 years, I have been privileged to have a seat on the 50-yard line, witnessing changes in information technology (IT) and, more importantly, witnessing the resulting changes in society.

Many of the advances in IT have fit the predictions of "Moore’s law" - the observation by NAE member Gordon Moore that the number of transistors per unit area doubles about every 18 months. That translates roughly into a doubling of memory capacity and processing speed and a halving of size, cost, and power consumption every year-and-a-half. There have been about 25 such doublings since I wrote my first program, an increase of a factor of about 32 million. That is, roughly speaking, the difference in speed, memory capacity, power consumption, size, and cost between Illiac I and the laptop on which I am typing this paper.

Some think that in another decade or so Moore’s law will no longer apply - that we are approaching "fundamental physical limits" that will prevent the continuation of this remarkable phenomenon. Maybe so; maybe not. Obviously, at some point that must happen, but previous predictions of the end of Moore’s law were based on assumptions that clever engineers were able to circumvent. In any case, the important thing is not Moore’s law but whether IT will continue to improve our lives as it has for the last 40 years. I for one don’t think the benefits will end abruptly or even taper off soon.

Significant computing advances have often been made because of applications to new problems rather than because of the forward march of Moore’s law. The papers in this issue of The Bridge, which are adapted from talks presented at the technical session (Computing Meets the Physical World) of the 2002 Annual Meeting, present a sampling of application domains in which the uses of IT are just beginning to be explored - from robotics to research tools to medical assists. Even with today’s technology - much less tomorrow’s - they illustrate applications where IT has the potential to make our lives safer, healthier, and more enjoyable and to enrich our understanding of nature.

From my 50-yard-line seat, even if Moore’s law were to fail tomorrow, which it won’t, a future that includes improvements in our quality of life through applications of IT looks very bright.

About the Author:Wm. A. Wulf is president of the National Academy of Engineering.