Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Software Bottleneck

It is worth reading Ray Kurzweil's predictions for 2009 from 1999's The Age of Spritual Machines. Not surprisingly, some things are right, some things are wrong. What's the pattern, though?

In technical terms, over-estimating our capacity to write software that keeps up with the exploding capabilities of hardware. We've barely advanced at all in our collective capacity to write software, and we've regressed in some ways (PHP, web programming in general...). Also, we've made precious little progress on the kind of interoperability standards that undergird a lot of the magic Kurzweil predicted. The Semantic Web vision was launching around the same time to provide the base for this kind of vision (intelligent software agents, etc), and the collective response from the people who would have to implement code meeting its specifications was "I prefer not to." It would be fun to go back in time and tell Kurzweil that no major new operating system would be successfully launched after 2001, or that a hot topic in 2009 would be re-writing standard desktop applications in Javascript. Or that this kind of obituary would be all to common:

Once thought to be the savior of IT, SOA instead turned into a great failed experiment—at least for most organizations. SOA was supposed to reduce costs and increase agility on a massive scale. Except in rare situations, SOA has failed to deliver its promised benefits. After investing millions, IT systems are no better than before. In many organizations, things are worse: costs are higher, projects take longer, and systems are more fragile than ever.

Luckily, there is a broad consensus including everyone from Alan November to expert on everything Mike Petrilli on the uselessness of teaching programming. Petrilli's research is particularly authoritative:

And what did I learn from spending time with little kids? Among many other things (such as, don’t pick your toddler son’s nose if you don’t want him to pick yours), I noticed how tech-savvy they are. Not a second after I unveiled my iPhone (did I mention I have an iPhone? I’m on Facebook too!) did our 9- and 7-year-old friends attack it with knowledge and skills befitting a systems engineer. “Download Spore! Download LineRider! Can I play? Can I play?” It took me weeks before I even figured out I could download applications onto my phone. How did they know all of this?

Now, this is surely a banal observation, but hello, 21st Century Skills people, do we really think we have to teach our schoolkids how to use technology? My wife and I reminisced with friends about the computer courses we had to take back in the day. Remember typing “if/then” statements into Apple 2E’s? How much good did that do us? If I had it to do over again, I would have much rather read some piece of classic literature instead.

When the Windows XP box uploading dying Mike Petrelli's consciousness to The Singularity blue screens, he'll wish he'd made a different argument.

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