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Sander Olson Interviews

Jeffrey Harrow

CONDUCTED JULY 2001


Question 1: Tell us a little about your background. How long have you been working with and interested in computers? Was there a "Eureka" moment when you first realized the potential of computers/electronics?

Ever since I can remember, I've had a passion for technology. It began as a ham radio operator, where I helped implement one of the first Touchtone-operated mobile phone services, to working at TV and radio stations, to working on commercial pager networks, building broadcast radio stations, and then getting into computers by building my own, I've always been intrigued by what electronics could do.

But building things wire by wire was hard and time consuming; I think that's why computers captured my imagination. For the first time, I could build something once, and then convince it to do a myriad of things just by writing different programs. Perhaps that was the Eureka moment, when I realized that I could spend time refining (or completely changing) what my computer could do, instead of having to start from scratch and build the next device. I dove into computers, and I've never looked back.

Question 2: Tell us a little about the origins and background of the Rapidly Changing Face of Computing (RCFOC).

The "Rapidly Changing Face of Computing" technology journal is very much an extension of my interests in technology, and in my desire to "spread the word" and help others understand and appreciate its potentials. In 1986 I began sending out informal "Tidbits" each weekend to my friends at work, chiding them to consider how some of the then-radical trends and technologies (such as PCs) might change our business. In not too long, a thousand people within the company had signed up on the mailing list, and interest continued to grow dramatically.

In 1996, after an increasing number of our sales folks said that they wanted to share what by then was called the "Rapidly Changing Face of Computing" with our customers to spur an ongoing dialog, we opened it to the public through Email, a Web page, and Web-based audio-on-demand. It's now read each week by more people than I ever would have imagined. In fact it's this large and growing "community" of RCFoC readers who help make the journal what it is, suggesting idea, pointing out new technology, and challenging my ideas and comments when appropriate.

Question 3: There are so many developments taking place in the field of electronics and computing, it is almost impossible to keep track of all of them. How do you filter your content and decide which technologies you are going to discuss on the RCFOC?

As the Internet and the Web grew, many people talked about "disintermediation" -- the effect of removing the "middleperson" from many types of transactions. Indeed, we've seen that happen with some types of transactions for some businesses, such as at bookstores and travel agencies, but the cries that "editors" would be disintermediated never seemed to come true. In fact, the explosion of "data" on the Web has done just the opposite -- there's SO much information out there that it demands "filtering," and human editors still represent the best content filters and aggregators available.

That's part of what I do with the RCFoC; I spend most of my week researching a huge (and by intent varying) number of sources to glean an understanding of "what's happening" in the technology fields that I think will have an effect on how people and computing and business and society will interact, and then I try to winnow the information down and make connections that may be less than obvious. And I try to explain all of this to people with widely varying business and technology backgrounds and interests.

I must say, that with all of the computing power and resources at our individual disposal these days, what I just described remains much more an art than a science. Alas, my computers are not very good at helping me with these tasks. Yet...

Question 4: The RCFOC takes full advantage of the Internet medium. What advantages do you think that the RCFOC has over traditional paper based content?

The RCFoC has in fact turned into a child of the Internet. Originally, when it was a company-internal journal, it relied on proprietary internal mail to get to its readers (it has always been a completely electronic journal, as I believe in "walking the talk.") At that time I did most of my research in a well-stocked corporate library from printed publications. As the Web developed, though, and as the rate of technology and business change continued to increase, I found myself increasingly weaned from the print publications because they just weren't timely enough. I couldn't afford to read about something that happened months before, and expect to keep my readers current. So increasingly, print publications went by the wayside, and today 98% of my research is conducted online.

That's the "input" side. But the Internet is just as significant on the "output," or publishing side of the RCFoC. Pre-Internet, it would cost a small fortune, and require a significant staff, to publish a weekly global "print" journal and "radio show" to a global audience. It would probably be prohibitively expensive. Yet today, from research to writing to publishing, the RCFoC is produced by one person, from my home office. Never before in history has this been possible.

Question 5: What plans do you have for the future of the RCFOC?

By intent, I don't "plan" the RCFoC; I let it evolve naturally, and I sometimes marvel at some of the directions it's taken me. For example, I never planed for the Internet and its Web to become a significant element of what we discuss -- that happened naturally (and initially somewhat surprisingly) as a result of "following my nose." And I never planned a "radio" version -- when the first highly-compressed audio-on-demand technology hit the Internet, I recorded one issue and put it out there to help people understand that it was possible to do this. I was so swamped with readers demanding that this continue, that the Web-based audio-on-demand version continued from that day forward, although the technology has evolved from time to time. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the RCFoC is the first and longest-running weekly technology "radio" show on the Web.

So my future plans for the RCFoC are -- to continue to see where it leads me; that way I won't be swayed or driven by preconceived notions or plans.

Question 6: The RCFOC has repeatedly emphasized the rapid growth of wireless, portable Internet access. Won't the small screen size and slow access times of wireless technology set a limit on the growth of this medium?

You're right -- today's small cell phone screens, low wireless bandwidth, and clunky input devices (phone keypads) put a significant crimp on wireless access. But with the (eventual) implementation of the 2.5G and 3G wireless infrastructures, and with continuing advances in portable technology (including virtual screens projected directly into our eyes, more computer power, better battery life, voice input, novel "keyboards," and more), the literal face of pocket computing will continue to evolve and become easier to use.

There's also the social factors -- in Japan, the "always-on" iMode Internet phones, which are somewhat more aesthetic and easier to use than most U.S. phones, have become the most popular way for Japanese to access the Internet. Similarly, Europeans have taken to cell phone-based SMS (text messaging) with a vengeance, sending billions of finger-entered text messages each month. In this case, even without any significant "human factors" improvements, the perceived benefit of pocket instant messaging outweighed its cumbersomeness. Imagine what will happen when it all comes together -- high bandwidth, long battery life, aesthetic presentation, and easy to use input and output mechanisms...

Question 7: What do you see the Internet looking like in the near future (within in the next decade)? Do you see broadband becoming ubiquitous? How can we solve the "last mile" problem of slow internet access?

I think the Internet will continue to look much like it does today -- an aesthetic and relatively easy way for people to connect with a world of personal and private information. Oh, the interfaces may well evolve (3D comes to mind), and (hopefully) search engine technology or other ways to get to just the information we want, will get better. But it will be the eventual ubiquity of broadband, always-on connectivity that will make the greatest difference. If you have ever had DSL, cable, or other always-on connectivity at home (or if you were to lose it at the office), you'd begin to appreciate just how much we can benefit from the Web if we know it's instantly available, a click away. (For example, it's been a long time since I've rummaged for the heavy Yellow Pages book -- with an always-on connection, the online versions are faster, more up to date, and I never have to go hunting for the book!)

Of course that "last mile" remains a nasty stumbling block. It's not that we don't have technological solutions to bring high-speed connectivity almost anywhere -- there are DSL technologies that can reach out farther than most phone companies will currently support. There are wireless solutions that already work wonderfully in some cities, but (so far) can't afford to spread out to all the suburbs. Some companies are experimenting with using the power lines to spread the Internet word. At least two companies now offer two-way satellite-based connectivity in North America for a reasonable monthly fee. And future advances, such as discussed by Teledesic, could bring this boon to the entire world. Couple that type of connectivity with inexpensive access devices such as are being explored for use in some areas of the world, and the world becomes a smaller place. And there are other potential last mile solutions as well. It's not the technology that is keeping the last mile at bay; it's the "will," and the finances to make it happen.

Question 8: Many have speculated that Moore's Law will run out of steam within the next few years, yet others have stated that it might continue for the next three decades. How long do you believe that Moore's law will last?

You're certainly correct that many have forecast the death of Moore's Law during its 35-year reign. Yet it has remained amazingly consistent, even recently with people bringing ever more persuasive arguments that it must slow down, as we approach seemingly fundamental size limits. The thing is, people are endlessly inventive, and every time we come up against a technological blockade, some enterprising individual who just doesn’t' know any better finds a way through, or around, each successive "wall." And I don't think this will end!

Oh, we may eventually approach the limits of how many of today's transistors we can cram onto a silicon wafer, but scientists are already coming up with new laboratory technologies that, if successful, will make the best of our current work seem like vacuum tubes! Transistors made out of carbon nanotubes; molecular transistors; electron-level storage; quantum computing; even using the stuff of life, DNA, as a computing engine, are all being pursued. And if just one of these technologies escapes from the lab into the commercial marketplace, then "we ain't seen 'nothing, yet."

Question 9: Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec have provoked much discussion over the subject of Artificial Intelligence. What are your thoughts about AI, and Kurzweil's predictions?

I respect Ray Kurzweil's writings immensely -- he provides a reasoned and detailed analysis based on established technological trends, of how and when our computers will likely reach, and then exceed, the complexity of the human brain.

But what I'm not sure of, is if simply matching the complexity (the number of interconnects) of the human brain will necessarily make that computer as smart or as capable or as "self aware" as a human brain. I can't, of course, say that that won't happen, but my intuition tells me that there is much more to the human brain than mere "connections."

On the other hand, as our computing and medical technologies continue to evolve, we may be able to begin to observe and measure, and perhaps even to duplicate, those so far ill-defined attributes. Who would have imagined cloning, or the beginning of artificial organs, twenty years ago? We'll just have to wait and see...

Question 10: What is your opinion of molecular nanotechnology? Do you subscribe to the view postulated by the Foresight Institute, of molecular assemblers and nanobots?

The concepts behind nanotechnology are so powerful, yet so in their infancy, that it's hard to imagine what the results will be or when they might come to fruition. On one hand, we already use nano machines in common products (the airbag sensors in our cars). But the potential for building machines that can build other machines at the atomic or molecular level (nano-assemblers) is so vast, that if it comes to pass, the basics of how (and where) we manufacture the goods that drive our economies, as well as how we repair and potentially enhance ourselves, will change.

It's too soon to know how this will play out, but on the other hand, how many people in 1991 foresaw today's astounding computing and medical technologies, or that we'd have mapped the human genome? In the mid-1960s, as I experimented with the first commercially available transistors (one transistor in a tiny silver can the size of a pencil eraser), I couldn't have imagined today's commodity CPUs that contain more than forty million transistors. Similarly, as we get better at exploring and manipulating the very matter that surrounds us, the "impossible" could well become commonplace.
 

This interview was conducted by Sander Olson. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of CRN.

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