Learn to use computer power

I sometimes wonder where the world of computers is headed.
In high school in my day for math and physics, we had to learn to master the slide rule. We had to be able to multiply, divide, find square roots, and many other functions on either that straight stick or the circular one.
Adding machines could add but were big and bulky.
Then at the University of Waterloo, we still depended on the slide rule before the Chemistry Society, in 1970, purchased two calculators for students to use. Students taking computer courses were using the big IBM 360 computer in “Fryers Fort.”
But you had to know—and understand—programming to make those calculations and had to punch up boxes of data on computer cards that could be read. It was time-consuming and a single line of code could expunge everything (then the search was on to find the error).
Fast forward 40 years to today, when computers play a role in almost everything we do. Our smartphones can let us know to within a half-metre where we are at any given moment.
With thousands of applications, we can do almost everything from videoing children at play to taking photographs, reading books and newspapers, watching television, and much more.
Forty years ago, we never dreamed about the power of the computer. If we had written about the power of the smartphone back then, it would have been science fiction.
Today, our microwaves and ovens can tell when things are cooked. Our smart TVs can let us surf the web, as well as download movies and commercial-free television programs. Our PVRs allow us to record and skip over commercials, so that a football game or baseball game can be watched in 90 minutes instead of more than two hours.
Our time has been saved.
Very few people feel comfortable parallel parking. So every auto manufacturer now has a computer available as an option for drivers to use to parallel park.
It joins the other 30-100 computers in automobiles that are sold.
In the workplace, computers and automation have made us all more productive. The downside is that it also has reduced the workforce.
In a column in the New York Times entitled “If I Had a Hammer,” Thomas L. Friedman noted that we are at the start of the Second Machine Age. If you recall, the First Machine Age began with the invention of the steam engine in the late 1700s.
As industry developed, steam delivered more and more power and was adapted to hauling freight across countries and oceans.
Today, software engineers are developing tools for the computers that take on more and more jobs once held by people. We all watched as “Watson” destroyed all the humans who were super champions on “Jeopardy!”
IBM now has made the computer available for commercial applications in New York.
“Watson” consumed data and could output it faster than any human. It is able to gather and to cross-reference information across vast subject matter and come to conclusions.
It can out-pace any individual in gathering and digesting information. One of its principle uses will be in banking cancer research.
These artificial intelligence machines often can make better decisions than humans.
The movie “Her,” in which “Theodore Twombly” falls in love with the voice on his smartphone, is really not too far off the mark in the potential of computing. Digital or online dating is more and more popular, and more than 40 percent of couples admit to connecting through the Internet.
With all the smartphones, tablets, and computers sending out information, computers like “Watson” will be the vacuums of such information. We will have to learn how to ask the right questions of those computers to use the information.
We will have to train and teach ourselves those skills. That information, in turn, will create new jobs and industries.
Computers seem to be even more involved in our lives than ever.
We have to learn how to use that computer power.

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