The British Aren’t Coming! Part 2

Part 2 – Our Jugular Vein

(Read Part 1- The British Aren’t Coming!)

When the iPhone was introduced, and Steve Jobs used Google Maps to look for the nearest Starbucks, call it and order for coffee, he captured our imaginations. A few years later, when Apple introduced Siri and her search/assistance capabilities, I thought of Jeeves in Iron Man (though Siri is still not as advanced as Jeeves).

With our increasing dependence on computers and the internet, the technology increasingly becomes our vulnerability. It is simply too convenient not to network our utilities (power, water, communications, etc) through the internet. In Jeremy Clarkson’s BBC documentary he demonstrates how he can kill a computer using an electronic magnetic pulse (EMP). A low-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated over a city can do the same thing.

However, I can already remember in two films, notably Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0), the Hollywood writers speculate that cyber warfare can bring our networks down through cyberattacks and computer viruses. Nuclear weapons or exotic technologies that can generate EMP’s are not necessary. They only need to create a virus, and with our interconnected, socially networked computers, everything can easily brought to its knees.

Look around you and count the blessings computers have brought us: Internet access everywhere, smartphones that are bona-fide handheld computers, people being able to bank over the internet, work over the internet, buy anything over the internet. Then imagine if one terrible day, all these gifts were taken away. We will have to go to the banks to withdraw. We will have to go to the library to find out what we need to know. We will have to go to the office to work. Worse, what if all the power went out, all the water and telephones are cut, and when we go outside our homes all the streets are choked with traffic, all the airports are closed, the government and private offices are closed and no one can figure out how much pay they should get because all the computers and the networks are dead?

In a few hours, chaos. In a few days, anarchy. In a few weeks, our veneer of genteel civilization and scientific wizardry would be stripped away. We would be savages in a year.

That’s the Die Hard  scenario. In the Terminator 4 scenario, the virus achieves sentience and starts wiping us out, or worse, enslaving us.

Ludicrous? Impossible? No, we are eagerly rushing to meet this future! The future where we will willingly hand over all tasks, all our records and our mountains of data, all the inconvenient nitty-gritty of maintaining civilization, to computers. And one day, after computers have slowly replaced our gods, they will fail us or worse, rebel against us and punish us. What should be done? How can we prevent this? Would it be possible to still use computers to do the important clerical work but not relinquish to them complete control over our lives?

The British Aren’t Coming! Part I

One of my favorite teaching tools is the BBC video “Inventions That Changed the World” with its host, Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear. Jeremy is a funny, sarcastic guy and he certainly got the viewer’s attention at the beginning when he demonstrated the love/hate relationship mankind has with computers.

However, I have a personal two favorite bits in his show, and I’m making a two-part blog post about them.

Part I – The British Role in Computer History

1. Charles Babbage conceived of a Turing Complete computer one hundred years before the the first constructed Turing Complete computer.

Babbage’s Analytical Engine was Turing-complete. The significance of being ‘Turing-complete’ is instead of making many specialized computers each able to do one thing, you have one computer that can do many things. The computer becomes a Jack-of-all-trades or the Swiss-Army-knife among machines. All you need to do is to switch the program you’re using to suit your need. If we want to listen to music, we open iTunes. If we want to play games, we open Plants vs. Zombies. Our smartphones and laptops are Turing-complete computers.

2. During World War II, Tommy Flowers made a code-breaking computer, ‘Colossus’, that helped win the war.

When the war ended, a fifty-year security clampdown prevented anyone from exploiting the technology. Anyone British, that is. The Americans knew about Colossus, and turned what they knew into world dominance over the computer industry today. The largest computer companies today, whether hardware or software, are American and Asian. Very few British computer-related brands (of any significant size) survives.

The upshot of both is: twice, the British were on the verge of a computer revolution years ahead of any other world power and twice, the British let the opportunity slip past their fingers. The first instance, during Babbage’s era, the British was a naval power, with an empire extending worldwide. Babbage’s Analytical Engine would have been a fantastic technological advantage, but Babbage spent all the government’s money without finishing his first machine, so the government stopped his funding.

In the second instance, Britain needed the Colossus computer to break the German Enigma code. When they won the war, they could see an upcoming war with their former allies, the Russians, so the British Government kept Colossus a secret so they would have a technological advantage in codebreaking against the communists.

Here is the fun part: What if in either or both instances, Britain ‘got it’ and developed and exploited computers?

In the second instance, after World War II, if the British did not save ‘Colossus’ as a secret technological advantage against the coming Communist threat (the Russians), then the British might have been toe-to-toe with the Americans, perhaps might even had dominated the industry and maintained their dominance, keeping the technological edge within Europe. Perhaps a British brand (‘Apricot’ Computers?) would lead the industry today, keeping IBM from the no. 1 spot, possibly preventing Apple from coming into existence.

If the British dominated the computer industry and the American IBM was no. 2, would they have crowded out Sony, Fujitsu, the Taiwanese Asus, the Korean Samsung? Would personal computing evolve or would they have kept the ‘mainframe’ and terminal paradigm? Big mainframe computers and dumb terminals for users to log in through? Would the Internet have evolved or would the industry freeze in the mainframe paradigm because the British have maintained their economic, technological and political dominance over the world for so long?

How about the first incident with Babbage? What if Babbage had succeeded and we had computers in the 19th century, before the development of electricity and gasoline engines even? That would be more fun to speculate about.

Would our computers run on steam? Can you imagine a steam-driven laptop or smartphone? With computers, would we have developed airplanes, or even better, safer air transport like dirigibles, evoking the future of steampunk fantasists?

Surely, armed with steam computers, the British Empire would survive till today. That means Hong Kong, Malaysia, India, Australia and more would still be British. With their computers, they can maintain their Empire and perhaps even expand it. Could a World Government be achievable? Hard to believe, more likely even with the help of computers running their empire the whole thing would still fall apart.

However, if the British maintained and even expanded their empire until the entire world were united as one government, would all our resources and efforts have focused outwards, towards space exploration? It was H.G. Wells, a British citizen, who speculated about these things in his novels ‘The First Men in the Moon’ and ‘The Shape of Things to Come’. Would the British World Empire decide to explore and exploit the solar system?

That would be fun to imagine, us maturing as a species, able to unify as one government, technologically advanced enough (thanks to the early development of computers) to colonize the solar system, giving us the confidence and practice to make the first leaps towards other stars light years away.

(Read part 2 of ‘The British Aren’t Coming!)

Run Windows in your iPad!

A new online service ($4.99 a month) allows you to run Windows 7 on your iPad. That includes Flash! The trick here is the app, OnLive, will run Windows Server 2008 on their superfast computers, and show you the desktop and whatever is running on it, in your iPad. This is thin client computing as conceived back in the sixties and seventies when computers were mainframes and you used a terminal to access the computer. In the 90’s, to defeat, big bad Microsoft Windows, Sun Microsystems thought of Java, a software that can possibly be used as an operating system, running on a cheap, dumb “client”. The real computing will be done at servers over the internet.

Well, the dream is a step closer, but the players have changed. The app is provided by OnLive (a gaming company) and the hardware can be an iPad or an Android tablet. We are slowly going to a disposable computer! Like those disposable film cameras, we can go to a vending machine, pay, take out a cardboard computer, use it for a while, then dispose!

Man Attacks Anonymous, Pays Stiff Penalty

The hacker group Anonymous has a romantic side, like Robin Hood, helping the weak and protecting them from the rich and powerful. However, they can occasionally show a brasher, darker, more disturbing side. Here’s one guy who agrees with plenty of the good things Anonymous has done, but he’s disturbed by some of the abuses of power they have also committed.

So he decides to find out who these hackers are. How he did it, and what happens to him afterwards, is a cautionary tale for everyone.  (note, plenty of coarse language in the article)