Tag Archives: education

Geekery in 8-bits and more

In which I get misty-eyed and nostalgic, geek out over electronics, and think about mobile and the cloud.

Then

On Saturday I went along to the Horizons 30th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum event, organised by Paul Squires and Leila Johnston and held at the BFI in London. The event ran on both days but I wasn’t able to stay on the Sunday, so I missed at least half of the fun!

Steven Goodwin reads Sinclair User

Although I’m full of nostalgia for the 8-bit era, I have to confess I never actually owned a Speccy or any Sinclair hardware. My friends did, but I was primarily an Acorn enthusiast and our first home computer was an Electron (although the first computer I used at primary school was a Commodore PET).

I fondly remember some of the hacks I did on/with/to the Electron, including soldering a pair of headphones into the motherboard to avoid annoying my parents with the music from various Superior Software titles 🙂

Regardless of “allegiance”, Horizons was a really great day. Highlights for me included a fantastic history of computing by PJ Evans from The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park (if you haven’t been there yet, you should visit!); Spectranet, an Ethernet adapter for the Spectrum which had me wanting one for no good excuse that I can come up with; and the mind-blowing live composition of a chip tune by Matt Westcott which I saw, but I struggled to comprehend. Matt’s ability to reverse engineer a tune in his head was remarkable.

Oh, and if you haven’t downloaded or bought MJ Hibbett‘s Hey Hey 16k yet, or at least streamed it, you really should.

aside: since Horizons was part of SciFi London, I tried to get Micro Men director Saul Metzstein to drop some hints about his upcoming S7 Dr Who episodes. All he would say was that the western episodes were filmed in Spain (knew that), and that the script for the Christmas episode hasn’t been written yet (didn’t know that).

Now

Components

After the event on Saturday evening, I found it a real struggle to avoid crazy, nostalgia-fuelled eBay purchases, but I did manage to resist! Instead, I resolved to finally get around to building the Fignition I’d picked up at the Hack to the Future event a couple of months ago.

For those who are not familiar with it, the Fignition is a credit card sized build-it-yourself 8-bit computer based around the ATMega chip (the same one used in the Arduino and Nanode Open Source hardware boards). It’s really a remarkable little device – I guess it took me about an hour to assemble and solder, although your mileage may vary. The build guide is excellent and very clear. After performing a couple of power on tests with and without the ICs inserted, it was time to connect up to the TV – and it worked first time. It boots into a simplified Forth environment, which was reminiscent of that BBC BASIC> prompt I am so familiar with from my childhood. The only real downside is that the keyboard – built from 8 clicker buttons – is a bit fiddly to get to grips with, but hey – I just assembled a complete 8-bit computer including video out and keyboard! It’s hard not to be excited.

The board I built was a RevD – the new RevE board has onboard audio in/out (get ready for some fun loading stuff from audio cassettes, again!), and is also slightly modified so that in principle, it is possible to add Arduino-footprint shields. That’s kind of cool, as it means that it might be possible to add a PS/2 keyboard or a network interface.

Ready to test!

What’s “the point” of something so simple, by today’s standards? Well, actually – the simplicity. I went from a bag of components, to a fully working computer in the palm of my hand – no surface-mount components – to a programmable device. It’s “primitive” by the standards of today’s machines, but it’s not that hard to understand how an 8-bit “brain” works, in comparison to the 32 or 64-bit mulitcore CPUs and GPUs in modern laptops and mobile phones. In my opinion, the Fignition, Arduino and Nanode fulfil an important role in helping youngsters to understand the basic principles of electronics and computing.

Next

Last night I headed along to the fantastic Mozilla offices in London.

Mozilla Space, London

The main LJC event was Simon Maple from IBM showing off the new WebSphere 8.5 Liberty Profile running on a Raspberry Pi. I’d hooked Simon up with Sukkin Pang recently so that he could get one of the smart enclosures he provides for the Pi. It was pretty cool to see a full Java app server running on such a small computer – actually almost exactly the same size as the Fignition, only considerably more powerful of course.

The whole talk was live streamed on Mozilla Air – but if you missed it, there’s a video available (complete with semi-professional heckling from yours truly!)

Boot 2 Gecko

What stole the evening for me, though, was two other glimpses of what lies ahead. First, Tom Banks from IBM Hursley came on stage after Simon and showed off the Liberty profile running on a mobile phone. Let me clarify – he was running Android 2.3 on a Nexus One (an “old” phone), running Ubuntu Linux as a virtual image inside of that, and WebSphere inside of that. Kind of mind-blowing! A proof-of-concept and arguably not very useful… not sure when I would want to put a full JEE app server in a phone… but extremely cool. Finally, @cyberdees let Tom and I have a play with Boot to Gecko – Mozilla’s new mobile play. B2G was something I’d heard about, but not touched. I have to say that even in an early form, it’s looking very slick, boots extremely fast – much more quickly than any Android or iOS device I’ve seen – and the device integration (GPS, camera, access to hardware settings, etc) was impressive.

With the Open Web as the platform, ubiquitous mobile devices, and increasingly sophisticated cloud-based backends to interact with, the future is looking pretty cool.

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Makers. Creativity. Learning. LEGO FTW.

It began, as these things sometimes do, with a childhood passion.

One of my earliest memories is of kneeling on the floor at the back of my bedroom making LEGO cars – it was in version 1.0 of my bedroom as I grew up, before new furniture and decoration. I must have been about 4, or 5. I had a castle, knights, some space stuff including base boards with little moulded “craters”… lots of fun as a child.

When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

I’d long known that many of my friends and colleagues have remained huge LEGO fans (Cerys has just blogged about her interest; Ben made some fun timelapse videos of building his Christmas present). For me, a key moment was Roo‘s 3 minute masterpiece of a paean to the medium at Interesting in 2008, embedded here for your enjoyment. Listen to the audio slidecast – closest you can get to having been there, and Roo did a wonderful (and amusing!) job.

Also, a memorable talk at the CRIM Crystal Ball Conference in Montreal in April 2010 (at which I also spoke) came from then Professor of Innovation at LEGO Group, David Robertson – a tale of Rebuilding LEGO, and how the company had saved itself from bankruptcy by refocusing on its core values and customer needs. It was a fantastic story and I was rapt.

More recently, I went along to the Internet of Things meetup in London last month, and was delighted to see Ken “monsonite” Boak – creator of the Nanode, a fantastic UK-grown prototyping platform akin to Arduino – use LEGO as his metaphor for a talk exploring Open Source electronics. Ken was kind enough to pop his slides up on Slideshare today, so you can take a look. He’d just been out to get some LEGO the previous weekend…

That talk was more-or-less the moment when I realised – I needed some LEGO. I wanted some. Both as a way of seeing where things had gone to, and to help me to prototype things, and just… well… just because! I’d already started to use dioramas featuring minifigs in a couple of presentations recently and had good feedback, so I figured that was another excuse 🙂

So, on Saturday I decided to dip back into my passion for LEGO. It started with a bucket of bricks from the nearest toy shop… but then I noticed the LEGO Star Wars sets with slight discounts[1]… and I figured well, obviously I’d need some wheels of some kind so picked up some City sets… and some of the foil-bag Minifigures…

The splurge quickly developed into a binge via a @darachennis-inspired trip to the LEGO store in Westfield White City on Sunday… picking-and-mixing bricks from the back wall, and signing up for the VIP program. There may be no hope left for me…

Celt Bucket o' bricks LEGO splurge

So what have I learned?

  • Minifigs are brilliant. The aforementioned David Robertson gave me his business card, his details printed on a minifig resembling him, in Montreal in 2010 and that reawakened my interest. When I was a kid they all had the same pair of staring eyes and identical pleasant non-threatening smile, but the range of looks and expressions now available make them as much fun to customise as the full sets.
  • People talk about the beauty of Apple’s designs – both inside and outside of the product (not that I’ve ever cracked open an iPhone to look inside). LEGO is blocky and “harsh”… but the designs and assembly process is beautiful. Assembling little cars and other sets on Saturday evening, following simple pictorial instructions, I realised that every piece had a place and it all fitted together wonderfully, perfectly. That (re)discovery had me as delighted as an adult, with a more architectural and design-oriented brain, as I was as a kid with the sheer enjoyment of being able to build and modify things.
  • In my opinion, all kids should be given some LEGO, and allowed to build the models from the boxes themselves (much though I’m sure as an involved adult I’d be itching to take over!). I’ve blogged recently about my excitement for the maker culture, and this is really where it can all begin.
  • I need to keep an eye on my bank balance, and a check on my excitement. I love it, but I bought it for “professional” reasons… 🙂

Last week, the UK Government announced that ICT courses would be replaced with Computer Science, including a programming element (one of the campaigns I’ve been passionate about). At an event from The Education Foundation in London the next day – The Future of Technology Education – I was privileged to hear one of my personal heroes Ian Livingstone (of Fighting Fantasy books, Games Workshop and Eidos fame) speak and refer to “digital Meccano” – and I owned Meccano as a child too.  He also highlighted the need to combine science and art to push the digital boundaries.

Here’s what I think: we should be giving children a choice of physical LEGO, Meccano, and other toys; encouraging their creativity and building skills; and helping them to bridge between both the digital and physical worlds. No child should be excluded, and none should be pushed down a particular path. We should be supporting and helping every child to discover their passions and explore them; recognising that not every individual will want to program, or draw, paint, build, or write – but never belitting anyone for their talents or interests.

I’ve rarely been as excited about the future than I have been right now!

[1] as a child in in the 1980s I owned significant numbers of the Palitoy Star Wars figures and vehicles[2]. Whoever thought of combining LEGO and Star Wars is a genius – so much MORE FUN than the original, inflexible, non-customisable toys. So much more interactive, and through the video games, adding a humorous new twist on the Star Wars saga. LOVE.

[2] … I never had the Millennium Falcon or the Death Star, though… always wanted those…

Virtual Worlds and Technology Futures

Last week I was privileged to be invited to give the closing keynote at an event called ReLIVE 11 (Research and Learning in Virtual Environments) at the Open University. This was certainly a big deal for me as I was in the company of some brilliant academic minds and some tech celebrities – plus, the OU is an important and well-known institution (despite the fact that I heard Leo Laporte say that he’d never heard of it on the MacBreak Weekly podcast I was listening to as I drove to Milton Keynes last Tuesday evening!).

I’d previously explained to the organisers that I hadn’t spent so much time exploring virtual worlds lately as I was doing three or four years ago at the height of IBM’s involvement with platforms such as Second Life and our own internal Metaverse. Having said that, I have spent more time with gaming platforms such as XBox and the Nintendo 3DS since then, and more recently also Minecraft. Naturally I did have that business perspective and story to share… and, as the closing keynote I had the interesting task of pulling together the threads we’d covered during the breakout sessions at the conference, as well as attempting to look ahead to what trends might be important in the future.

The video is online via the Open University website and the talk with Q&A lasted for about an hour. More coverage of ReLIVE 11 is aggregated on Lanyrd.

Summary

As I noted in the opening and closing sections of the talk – predictions of the future are a hit-and-miss affair. We may now have tablet computers arguably even cooler than the Star Trek padds and communicators, but I’m still waiting on my hoverboard. Nevertheless, I tried to frame the story of IBM’s exploration of virtual worlds and 3D environments with some discussion of trends. It also gave me an excuse to talk about Back to the Future, and a cool ad that Nike recently released tying back in to the movie.

I want to reiterate (as it may not have been clear from tweets that emerged during the event) that these were very much my own thoughts and not the views of my employer – in fact, I was attending the event in a personal capacity. So, per the presentation, my thoughts on trends to watch in the next five years:

  1. 3D Printing: I’ve seen RepRap and other 3D printers more often in the past couple of months than ever before, and it is clear that prototyping and fabrication are coming within financial and technical reach of more than just the early adopting minority. That’s not to say this is something I see going “mainstream” – but as access opens up, expect to see many more interesting things happening here.
  2. Social broadcast: I think “TV” is rapidly giving way to a more generalised broadcast media that is being consumed across multiple devices, remixed, shared, etc. I also think that social streams are adding to the experience of how these media are being consumed, as evidenced by hashtags broadcast on BBC programmes, and the ways in which conversations form online around events and video streams.  A nod to my friend Roo Reynolds too, a man constantly way ahead of his time…
  3. Touch and Gesture: we already know that the ways in which we interact with technology is evolving fast. Watch any child approach a large screen and attempt to press the screen, expecting their cartoon hero to become interactive. This is not going to stop – Microsoft have some amazing technology in this space with Kinect and we should get used to and embrace the changes as they happen if we want to evolve.
  4. Big Data: a nod to my own organisation’s Smarter Planet story, and an acknowledgement that every one of the major tech firms is investing in ways to store, mine, slice and analyse the increasing amounts of data flowing in from the environment and our personal signals. This is just a continuing story, but we’re at a point where it is a red hot topic. It would have been a good point to mention Watson, if I’d thought on my feet quickly enough!
  5. Identity: this is not so much something where we will see technical progress necessarily, as an area I think will be a threat, and difficult to resolve. The nymwars of Google+ are one edge of the issue. I believe that there is a real tension between the freewheeling days of the earlier Internet, the desire of individuals to make their own choices about identity (often for valid social reasons, other times for vanity), and corporations and political entities that want to close this situation down. This is going to be a tricky one.

So what of virtual worlds? Three words: Not Gone Away. They may have morphed, lost their early shine, the bubble burst – but we have a range of immersive experiences (and social, but not necessarily immersive ones) through which we interact. I mentioned Minecraft and how that is being used for teaching. I talked through IBM’s work with serious gaming. I spoke about the IBM Virtual Center briefly, and that’s online and used today – in fact Jack Mason just posted a nice deck on that which carries some statistics, if you want to learn more.

Thoughts on education

I clearly was not the most experienced individual in the room when it came to discussions about teaching and education, and I particularly enjoyed hearing different presenters at ReLIVE11 talk about how they are using OpenSim, OpenWonderland and other platforms. However – after my recent post on Raspberry Pi and my exploration of the Brighton Mini Maker Faire I’ve been thinking increasingly about Maker culture and how we could bring technology teaching back around to practical matters.  I was disappointed to read the Government’s (lack of) response to John Graham-Cumming’s recent letter on the same subject, though.

One of the things that I called out as a barrier to the adoption of immersive worlds and new technologies at work is something I’m calling The Empty Room Problem – the fact that unless you build it and then populate it, they will not necessarily come. I’ll be writing about this some more shortly, prompted by Derek Jones’ great blog post.

During the Q&A session I gave an answer to one of the questions which contained some ideas I’ve had on a possible curriculum – I’ll try to expand on those in the near future as well.

Teaching technology in the future – Raspberry Pi

Before you dismiss this as TL;DR – it’s a subject dear to my heart, and I believe that there’s some cool content as well as some storytelling – do give it a chance!

A sad state of affairs

I believe that we have lived through the best period to teach and learn about computers and technology, and that over the past few years we have been creating a void, a vacuum, in which progress may be diminished.

Google’s Eric Schmidt recently called out the British education system as holding back or dismissing our technology heritage. According to a ZDNet article on his speech in Edinburgh:

Schmidt said the UK’s approach to technology in education — not making IT compulsory as a subject at the GSCE-level and not providing enough support for science students at colleges — meant the country was “throwing away” its computing heritage.

See also the BBC and Guardian coverage of the story.

I can’t say I think he’s wrong, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Anyone who has heard me ranting about the state of things in a side conversation at any recent event in the past couple of years, will have heard me tell a similar story. When I was a lad – and I know that some of those who read this will be older, just let me reminisce without interrupting, OK? 🙂 – I grew up on an early Commodore PET with green screen, followed by BBC Micros, Acorn Electrons, etc. I’ve had a couple of occasions to look back on that era recently, with a visit to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, seeing the team from TNMoC visit the Brighton Mini Maker Faire, and through talking to folks at TransferSummit (of which more, in a moment). In my day, you plugged in the power, the machine made a satisfying BEEP! and you were presented with a black screen with the word BASIC and a > prompt. That’s just how things worked. To do anything else, you had to tell the computer to do it – and you learned a lot as you did so!

Without wanting to sound like some kind of old fogey – kids today never had it so good! They have grown up in an era where all they have ever known is a world where every computer is connected to the Internet, a giant brain which appears to be all-knowing (and I know that this is how a 3 or 4 year old thinks: my own younger family members have said “we’ll just look it up on the Internet, it knows everything”, without understanding that humans have known everything, and the computers just tell us what we’ve told them, at a basic level). They have fast, interactive machines which are dramatically more usable – and instead of bulky noisy systems which were just about user-serviceable, ideally when you had an antistatic wrist strap to hand… they have magic, thin, sheets of glass that can be controlled at the slightest touch.

That’s fantastic. It puts children today in a position where they can be more creative than ever before – I could barely edit low-quality digital scanned photos by the time I left school, let alone edit full HD video with a variety of awesome effects. So one thing we can teach them is how to use creative tools like… oh I don’t know… Office suites (capitalisation deliberate, sarcasm heavy).

The thing is – we don’t need to teach schoolchildren how to use a productivity tool like that. By the time they have sat watching us for 5 minutes aged 6, they intuitively “just get it”. Worse is the fact that we’ve nearly removed the ability to look under the covers at what makes the machines work – certainly in a hardware sense you’d need a very advanced knowledge of microelectronics to do anything with the innards of most smartphones, and software is often becoming more and more locked up to the whims of the hardware manufacturers (naming no Apples). Plus of course, everything is online. So what does this mean for the curiosity to take things apart either in hardware or software, see how they work, and build something new?

(the irony is not lost on me that as a History graduate, I’m an unusual spokesperson for this debate)

Makers and getting back to basics

KitTen, Uno, Nanode One of the reasons I’m excited by the trend towards making things – what I’ll term the Maker movement, in a nod to the Brighton Mini Maker Faire and the magazine that has inspired the events – is that it reflects both our natural human curiosity and interest in building things, and making them work. I also think that is part of the reason behind our interest in prototypable electronics like Arduino – we have gone through a period of making things smaller, more compressed and proprietary, and the pendulum is swinging back towards open hardware, simple construction, and ease of learning. This is a huge, great and important step, in my opinion.

Enter – a Raspberry Pi

So how can we take advantage of that trend towards discovery and learning, and combine it with small cheap electronics, to really make a difference? Well, you may have heard of the Raspberry Pi Foundation – it has had a fair amount of coverage in the UK anyway, with the promise of a new low-cost computing platform which could theoretically replicate the success of the BBC-sponsored, Acorn-built, BBC Microcomputers from the 1980s (and backed by one of the most successful computer games authors of that era). Those BBC Micro systems were rolled out across schools all over the UK, and pretty much anyone in the 30-40 age bracket will have learned to write some kind of BBC BASIC or LOGO code at some point in their education, and have looked at fractals and played a variety of classic 8-bit games. My first home computer was an Acorn Electron, an affordable beige “keyboard box” that could be plugged straight into a home TV in 1984, with games and programs loaded off a (then) common cassette player.

The folks at Raspberry Pi believe that having a cheap computer which can be presented as an education device could be a success. At the TransferSummit last week, I met Eben and Liz Upton from the project, and had a chance to play with the system first hand. I also made a quick film of this amazing little computer playing full HD video – and the excitement is obvious in the fact that it has received nearly 50k hits on YouTube in just 4 days, probably helped by an appearance on the Raspberry Pi blog and also in a feature on Geek.com!

One of the things that Eben spoke about was the idea that it would almost be more interesting for these things to boot to a Python prompt instead of a full Linux desktop (which it is well-capable of doing), in order to ignite kids’ imaginations and force them into doing something more creative than simply doing what they would do with any other computer. I kinda like that suggestion!

Risks, and what else can we do?

I’m excited. As I said several times to Liz and others at the event this week – it’s a British organisation with vision, with an amazing idea, a product that works, and the desire to really reconnect children – particularly those in the developing world – with technology and how to drive it.

I can see a  number of risks, but the last thing I want is to be a naysayer here – I really, really want these folks to succeed. However, just looking at the excitement amongst hobbyists like me, and reading some of the comments posted on my video already, I realise that there’s a danger that the supplies of these things will quickly be snapped up by those wanting to make funky small home systems for themselves, rather than the altruistic wanting to help youngsters to learn (heck, I want one! so I understand that!). Or, kids may see these as just another form-factor of computer of the kind they are used to, plug it in, go online, and do nothing different to what they are already capable of. Another issue is that a bare board (the initial version won’t have a box, although that would be easy enough to fab) and a lack of instructions or clear fixed “syllabus”, if you like, may discourage teachers now used to teaching desktop computing and productivity tools, from embracing the potential to help students to create. It’s also entirely possible that these things will simply be cloned elsewhere. For all of these reasons, I’m determined to do what I can to promote the Raspberry Pi concept as an educational tool, and to support the team behind it. It’s important. It deserves to be a massive success.

So, what else can we do?

One thing is to go and sign the brilliant Emma Mulqueeny (aka @hubmum)’s e-petition on the UK gov website. She’s campaigning for an earlier entry for programming into the classroom, at primary level, particularly to encourage more girls to take an interest in technology. I think this is a brilliant step. Nik Butler has posted about the importance of teaching this stuff, too, and I encourage you to read his post – I particularly support the way in which he refutes the list of reasons why this sort of teaching is allegedly a “bad” idea. He’s also talked about the Raspberry Pi on the Social Media White Noise podcast #70.

Another thing is to visit and support The National Museum of Computing, preferably with some kids you know – help them to see where we have come from and where we are going.

It’s obvious to me that we need to change the way we think about teaching IT, computing, and technology. Earlier teaching of programming is important. I also think that a basic understanding of how a computer system fits together would help, as well as a high-level understanding of the way in which the Internet works. Importantly though – and this rolls into a whole other passion of mine which I won’t rant about today – increasingly as we come together online, I think it is increasingly important to teach tolerance, understanding of other cultures, and good online community behaviour. How we collectively go about doing that, I’m not entirely sure – but it feels important.

Thanks for indulging me on this particularly long post – it really is a subject I care deeply about. And all that stuff about technology – from an historian and Arts student 😛

Centennial

On June 16 2011, IBM is 100 years old – a little older if you include the companies that existed before the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (that was later renamed to International Business Machines) merged in 1911.

That’s pretty good going, for a technology company.

If you’ve listened to me speak this year, you will have heard me mention various reflections on how IBM has endured as an organisation. In amongst all the celebrations, and excitement, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection this year. I’m an historian by education and interest, but also a technologist; and perhaps I might even dare to describe myself as a futurist. The IBM 100 celebration has really set me thinking.

Personal Beginnings

Hursley My first introduction to the place where I now work, our lab at Hursley, was when I set foot in Hursley House as a customer, which I think was sometime around about 1999. I was struck by the beautiful wood-panelled (or Wedgewood-decorated) surroundings, the sense of history (IBM has had a research and development lab here in the UK for over 50 years), and the excitement at being at the location of some of the biggest technical innovations of the century.

I grew up and went to school in Portsmouth in the 1980s. IBM at the time was huge. The IBM PC was becoming commonplace, although I was always more of an Acorn lad; many of my school friends had parents who worked at the IBM UK headquarters in North Harbour. I couldn’t fail to know what IBM did, and I grew up learning about computers, how they worked, and wanting to learn and do more with technology. I was a schoolboy nerd, sure – but I knew what IBM did and how important the company was to the technology industry.

The more I’ve been involved with “social” at IBM, the more I’ve come to realise an issue, which SVPs like John Iwata recognised several years ago. You don’t buy IBM-branded consumer software off the shelves now, and although we invented the personal computer, very few people realise that now – let alone care about the PC as a device, by comparison to mobile phones, tablets and game consoles (even if IBM chips do power all three of the current dominant home gaming platforms…). That’s one of the many reasons why IBM chose to trust its employees to tell the broader story of the company and its capabilities through social networking and online interaction, a situation that stretches back to 1997 when IBMers were first actively encouraged to be online and public, and that has continued as the social web has continued to develop.

IBM and history

As I look at the history of the organisation and the various world-changing innovations that we’ve catalogued and highlighted via the IBM 100 site, it makes me THINK.

Many youngsters don’t appreciate the invention of the floppy disk now. In fact, most of them will never have seen one. They are as bizarre an item today as the massive twin-tape-spinning machines I used to see on TV as a child, harking back to the 1960s and 1970s era IBM mainframes. Why should the floppy disk matter? Well, in a sense, not at all… they are a relic of a bygone technical age, before the Internet. But, of course, without the floppy disk, we wouldn’t have been able to build the amazing things we have now. Tablets, mobile phones, tiny portable wireless computers. Don’t forget where we’ve come from.

Talking of where we’ve come from, the BBC has posted a lovely video featuring my friend and mentor Dr Andy Stanford-Clark and the Hursley lab, talking about IBM’s centennial. If you listen at the start and end of the video, you’ll also hear the company anthem

Why does any of this matter? Does it, or should it, matter, that the company that I’m working for helped to put man on the moon using computing equipment less sophisticated than today’s smartphones? Or that we helped to unravel the human genome? Or that we’ve built a computer called Watson that can instantly understand highly nuanced and difficult questions? Some of these things have had clear commercial imperatives, others may have had less, but all have helped to increase the human race’s understanding of the world in which we exist, and have helped towards greater things. Big Data, mobile apps, event-driven business, and the Internet, have all built on top of these earlier advances.

I haven’t blogged for a while, because I’ve been travelling and speaking. A poor excuse, but it does at least enable me to comment that last month I toured the Nordics, and had an opportunity to see a working IBM punchcard sorting machine at our HQ in Helsinki, Finland, along with a variety of other cool things (well they were cool to me – just go with it…)

Numeric keypad Start | Stop IBM Series 82 Card Sorter  IBM Parts Catalogue  IBM Clock  System/360 and 370 Electromatic Typewriter Emergency Pull System Reset

Final thoughts

My final thought is, fundamentally, a mix of cautious optimism, and fear of a technology “generation gap”. I’ve grown up during an era straddling the pre- and post-Internet generations. I’m actually hugely grateful – it gives me perspective. I’m an enthusiastic adopter of many of the technologies that have arisen as a result of the interconnected world, and my day job is involved with enabling systems to work together, reliably. Important stuff, in my opinion.

The current/next generation is growing up in an immediately-connected world, and faced not with keyboards and mice or touchpads, but with magic pieces of glass, or indeed, gestures in the air. We’ve moved beyond the period where I hacked open my Acorn Electron and soldered in headphones and a switch to avoid bothering my parents, and indeed beyond the time where graphics and sound cards could be slotted in and out of a motherboard, to an age where everything you need is apparently contained within a magic sheet of glass which responds at a touch.

This is fantastic – glorious – magical? – Technology, as our friends at Apple like to say, just gets out of the way. But, as various commentators are observing, this progress comes at the price of the wider population understanding technology, or even having the inclination to dig beneath the surface and try to fathom how these super-duper, integrated chips and advanced operating systems, enable this advanced behaviour. I’m not saying that every child should be forced to understand programming, chip design, technology internals, etc. – but an awareness of what got us here, and how we can continue driving forward, and inquisitiveness, seems to me to be essential. That’s why I’m delighted by the emergence of Arduino and electronics prototyping; and by The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park; and why I’m proud to be an IBMer, aware of our heritage, and still helping to build a Smarter Planet. It’s a responsibility to continue to understand, explain, educate, and help others to make sense of the capabilities we have developed.

Final, final thought: how can we all work together to change the world again, tomorrow?

Book recommendation: Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, by Lou Gerstner.

Video recommendation: I’ve already blogged about IBM’s story of the first 100 years. Check out the videos 🙂