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Some social implications of the 'microprocessor revolution'

By JOHN THORNTON BANNERMAN

[Archive introduction: to forecast the future is to risk ridicule as soon as the forecast proves palpably inaccurate. To forecast the future of computers, and their effect on society might be regarded as asking for trouble. Mr Bannerman surely deserves credit for his largely accurate predictions, but, from the vantage point of almost 40 years on, this 1981 article is surely as interesting for the few things it got wrong, as the many it got right.]

THE 'microprocessor revolution' is the latest dramatic leap forward in our ability to produce electronic devices far more sophisticated, far smaller and more cheaply than seemed possible only a few years ago.

When the first electronic computers appeared in the late 1940s and 1950s they were vast masses of humming machinery, occupying house-sized volumes, costing millions of pounds to construct, and needing to be kept in a carefully purified, dust-free atmosphere at closely controlled temperatures. Teams of attendants had to scurry about with trolleys full of spares to replace the dozens of their hundreds of thousands of redly-glowing electronic valves which failed every hour.

Even when the transistor replaced the valve in the 1960s the resulting computers occupied large, air-conditioned rooms and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Today, thanks to the 'microprocessor revolution', a few tens of pounds will buy the man in the High Street comparable, fully-programmable computing power he can put in his pocket. For under £2000 he can buy a microcomputer system such as the PET or APPLE which will sit on a desk-top and far exceed the 1950s giant computers in sophistication of programmes (the instructions telling the machine what it must do), speed and complexity of calculation, and the amount of information the device can store in its 'memory'.

And these advances affect more than just computers. Throughout the electronics industry, circuitry carried on a suitcase-sized array of valves in the 1950s, a transistor-carrying printed circuit board the size of this page in the 1960s, and a postage-stamp-sized integrated circuit in the 1970s, is being incorporated in a silicon microchip microprocessor in the 1980s no larger than a full-stop.

Continuing trend

This in turn has already had its effect on the lives of ordinary people. The £7 credit-card-sized pocket calculator has swept into obsolescence the engineer's slide rule and the schoolboy's logarithm tables, to say nothing of the laborious adding up of bills and other rows of figures by the shopkeeper and the housewife with pen and paper.

Cheap digital watches, accurate to seconds in a year, have replaced clockwork on the wrists of the nation, and already, in Italy and Japan, cars built not by men but by computer-controlled robots have begun to roll off the assembly-line in their thousands. All these developments were the wildest fantasy in 1960, and futuristic science-fiction in 1970.

A part of ENIAC, the world's first electronic computer

A single microprocessor. Electronic devices seem destined to become smaller, cheaper and more sophisticated. This trend seems to have an ever-increasing impact on the lives of all of us.

In the 1980s this trend seems bound to continue. Electronic devices seem destined to become ever smaller, ever cheaper, and ever more sophisticated. And this seems certain to have an ever:increasing impact on the lives of all of us.

By the end of this century, if not of this decade, it appears highly likely that microprocessor-directed devices will be able to perform all the repetitive tasks making up any given assembly-line, and to operate automated chemical, ore-refining and power-generating plants, cheaper, faster and more accurately than human workers. They will not tire, get bored, lose concentration, need to stop work at the end of a shift and go home, or take industrial action.

Similarly, once the last remaining problems in the development of computers capable of accepting input in the form of human speech are overcome, computer-controlled word processor/printer and other units will replace many secretaries, typists, telephonists, clerks, receptionists and the like. Those managerial and executive staff whose functions are purely administrative, rather than innovative, creative or human-relations oriented, and even some doctors, could also face replacement by machines in the next 10―20 years.

Indeed, by the year 2000 it is entirely possible that a situation will arise in the more advanced Western nations in which anyone lacking well above average intellectual or creative abilities will be unable to play a useful role in most factories or offices other than sweeping the floor, cleaning the lavatories, dusting the desks and polishing up the computer consoles ― and machines to perform even these humble tasks are already at the prototype stage.

Home computers

The problem of what the bulk of our people are going to do with their time when they have no factory or office jobs to go to has a feasible twofold solution. Firstly it will be much alleviated directly by the same technical advances which produced the problem in the first place. For the advance of the microprocessor and its successors will affect the home as radically as it will the office and the factory floor. In at most twenty years it will be possible to install in every home a 'home computer unit', in appearance resembling a typewriter console attached to a colour TV set, the TV itself incorporating a teletype printout, and the whole unit connected in place of the existing telephone to the GPO network.

This device would serve as a TV set and as a telephone with vision link an optional extra. But it would also serve as a means of direct access for everyone to the total recorded knowledge, culture and thought of the Race. For, on typing in a request on the input console, any item of information, from today's racing results at Kempton Park to page 45 of the Magnusson/Palsson translation of Njal's Saga, from tomorrow's weather forecast for the Manchester area to the equatorial diameter of the planet Neptune, from the latest film release to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony could be flashed on the screen or played from the speakers (stereo if required!), having been called up from a central data store.

If a permanent record was desired, at the touch of a button written matter or illustrations could be produced from the printer unit. Any given page of any book ever printed, any piece of music ever recorded, any film ever made, would be available instantly to anyone at the touch of a few buttons. This would, of course, render printed books, newspapers, cinemas, records etc. (but not theatres) largely obsolete. Each time a home (or school) user screens a page of a book or a newspaper, or a film, or plays a piece of music, his bank account would be debited by a nominal sum and that of the appropriate author, publisher, film maker or musician correspondingly credited, thus fairly rewarding him according to the popularity of his work.

All this requires only technology already available, and indeed it is presaged in the present-day CEEFAX and ORACLE services provided by BBC and ITV. At the moment, the 'home computer unit' just described would cost several thousand pounds, but by 2000 it should, if present trends continue, cost only one or two hundred 1981 pounds. All that would then be required would be to beef up the data transmission capacity of the GPO telephone lines and connect up the central data storage computers.

The result would be to put into the hands of the public at large cultural, educational and entertainment resources immensely greater than any of us enjoy today, thus serving not only to fill their increased leisure hours but also, hopefully, to raise their cultural and educational level.

Secondly, life for those freed by the machine from servitude to the machine, be the machine in question typewriter, filing cabinet or conveyor belt, would be greatly enriched by the wider social consequences of automation. For the soul-destroyong conurbations which sprawled cancerously across our land in the 19th and 20th centuries were products of the need to move a vast workforce close to huge mass-production factories. Once machines have replaced that workforce, this need would of course disappear, and with it the hideous human antheaps it spawned. Cities, or at least large towns, would still survive as administrative, educational, cultural, entertainment and social centres, but a great deal of their present-day population could be dispersed into the countryside. Many of today's urban and suburban areas could be returned to the living world, leaving the historic centres of our cities to be landscaped in harmony with our heritage and our future.

Once in the country, the population could be settled in small (maximum adult population 2000-4000) village communities, in which that true spirit of community and fellowship, that willingness to treat neighbours mostly as friends, perhaps occasionally as foes, but at least as individual people and not as soulless digits, could grow up.

Each local community could be run by its members in the ancient tradition of our Northern peoples through folk-meetings at which all are eligible to speak and to vote, each can know all others present personally, and so heed the wise and shun the foolish, in the only true and workable Democracy. Each community would include several automated factories and those few technicians and maintenance men they require, village shopkeepers, publicans, schoolmasters, tradesmen etc., but would principally be made up of free yeoman farmers, tilling their fields, a tilling freed from peasant drudgery by modern agricultural technology (robot tractors, for example, programmed to plough a field on their own are not far off).

This class has ever been the backbone of a sound and healthy society because its members live in harmony with the natural world, with the cycle of the seasons, growth of crops and the lives of animals, a class rooted in the soil of the Motherland as an urban proletariat can never be.

A better life

Those fitted by ability and inclination to serve the Race on a wider or a higher stage than that provided by their home village ― itself, thanks to the computerised access from every home to the total intellectual and cultural wealth of our people, no habitation of ignorant rustic yokels ― would find scope for their talents and drive in national affairs or in the great spaceward adventure. For the vast supplies of raw materials which the machines will need to make the material prerequisites for the good life for all must eventually be won from the great dark beyond the skies of our homeworld.

The 'microprocessor revolution', the advent of the silicon chip and the accelerating advance in our technological capabilities it represents, opens a road to a better life for all our people, to a continuing social, cultural, intellectual and scientific advance, to the liberation of working people from their position at the bottom of the social pyramid by a new 'mechanical proletariat', to the building of the highest standard of civilization our World has ever seen, and to the next step upwards on the ladder of our racial destiny.