Fifty years ago, Tom Kilburn helped to develop Baby, the world's adopt modern-day technology. first computer running an electronically stored program. In the years since, computers have developed to affect almost every part of our lives. Technology evangelists tell us we are on the brink of an information age, where the Internet will be the medium for commerce and social interaction. But this is not a world Professor Kilburn subscribes to.
"I do not use Email or the Internet," Kilburn told PC Week. His goal has always been in research, rather than the application of computing, he explained. "Long before Baby was finished I could see what was wrong with it. Long before the next version was finished I could see how it could be improved. We have two alternatives, to start to use the new machine that has just been built, or to start trying to make the next one better.
That is what excites me - not using computers. When I look at the equipment it's not how I want to use it - I'm thinking about how it can be done better."
Kilburn was the centre of attention at a series of lectures at the University of Manchester last week commemorating 50 years of computing.
Like many of the forefathers of the industry, Kilburn's background was in mathematics, a discipline still as relevant in computer research today as it was at the start, according to Mike Brady, professor of information engineering at Oxford University.
Brady claims it was his Oxford research group that revealed Germany had actually scored its disallowed goal in the 1966 World Cup final, using the mathematical concepts of group theory and projective invariance. That work gave TV football analysts computer-enabled "virtual replay", as well as making the group the victim of hatemail. The work also showed how 19th century maths is relevant to 20th century computing.
Brady's work has ranged from minimal invasive surgery and reducing hospital stays following brain surgery to days rather than months, to robots controlling stock levels in factories, but all demonstrate the importance of computing to the modern engineer. Brady believes that information science will soon underlie all scientific disciplines.
"Information flow is becoming as important to engineers as the principals of mass and energy," he said. "The ubiquity of computation in the information age will be as pervasive as maths has been to science for hundreds of years. But it will be the way we think about information that is important, not the computers themselves."
However, the explosion of information systems is in itself creating scientific problems, according to Robin Milner, professor of computer science at the University of Cambridge. "To understand modern computing is a challenge to science at the moment," he said. "Unfortunately, it has all the charm of inventing the science of navigation while already onboard ship."
His Cambridge colleague, Professor Roger Needham, believes that the personal computers that have promised to bring so much convenience to our working and personal lives are actually getting more and more difficult to manage.
"It is a lot harder than you think to engineer things that seem simple and reliable to the users that are, in fact, complex," he explained. "With the PC we came to the stage where each man is his own systems engineer.
Designers try to make it easier by giving users a huge number of options.
In an attempt to let people tailor their systems to their own requirements, we have let complexity come back in.
"There are many cases in life where flexibility could be offered, but is not desirable - such as being given the option of where to put the accelerator when you choose a car. Removing complexity must in the end mean removing some choice."
Despite the apparent confusion that personal computers can bring, there is no stopping the development of the computing industry, and the way it affects how we manage our time and our money. Yet institutions such as banks, which are expected to be at the heart of Ecommerce, are struggling to keep up with change, according to Keith Bellemy, future consultant with Barclays Bank.
"We need help," he said. "Our homes are going to be awash with information appliances - you will be able to do your banking on a washing machine.
The real challenge for banks and other organisations is how to work more closely together and with their customers."
Moreover, Bellemy fears that the lack of investment in British computing research as a whole is hindering our ability to take part in the information age. "Baby has just reached adolescence," he said. "Never has research in organisations been more required but now we are less able to do it."
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