A back catalogue of ideas

When we look in to the works of some of our great inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Babbage, Nikola Tesla or even authors like Isaac Asimov, you have to ask “have we thought of everything we will ever need?”

This particular train of thought was sparked as I read a BBC article about Charles Babbage’s difference engine. This machine’s memory would be equivalent to around 675bytes, or just over half that of Sinclair’s ZX81, released in 1981. A later proposal by Babbage called for 20KB of storage. The machine’s clock speed would work out at around 7Hz, compared to the ZX81’s 3.2MHz – and this was all designed circa 1835. The fastest computers of today deliver 10-petaflops of computational performance per second – so time moves on but I have to ask if all of our ideas been realised?

Assuming not raises another question – where is the “back catalogue” of ideas that we’ve not been able to deliver on yet? And are we just waiting for the materials science to catch up? Every day I read something new is appearing, usually though it’s smaller, faster, cheaper rather than brand new and in achieving these attributes becomes more consumable and available to a wider population. The humble mobile phone is one example – with wireless telephony invented by a Kentucky Farmer called Nathan B Stubblefield as long ago as 1907!

Another example comes to mind that of wireless power, Nikola Tesla demonstrated this circa 1896 and only now is it close to reality with technology demonstrators that we would recognise with contact changing mats and wireless monitors.

So as material science brings many of these crazy ideas in to the realm of possibility it would be great to see companies returning to the dusty archives in patent offices (or company intellectual property offices) and reviewing what they have, to see if it old ideas are now possible. On the flip side we have to avoid squabbles over patents (the “Nortel patent wars” are just one example) – it’s much more preferable that something tangible is realised rather than arguing in a court of law.

Really it’s not just about the way we will do things but how we already do things today. Just because we worked out how to crack a nut with a sledge hammer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go back and examine the original “nut cracker” invention to see if the material science allows us to accomplish the task more effectively and to greater benefit to society.

I’ll leave you with two questions:

  1. Which is the greatest invention that we’ve realised so far: the wheel; paper and the written word; the Internet; or something else?
  2. What idea that you have heard of is still to be realised in our World today? (“Beam me up Scotty”)

Innovation in a tea shop, whatever next?

In recent weeks, I’ve seen this quote crop up in several places:

“US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 50% of the jobs we will have over the next six years have not yet been created.”

I haven’t seen the original source, but it certain made me stop and think.  And, whilst pondering that thought, I came across an excellent article by John Lamb talking about the 60th anniversary of business computing in the UK, in a tea shop of all places.

The article caught my attention as the company that deployed that computer ended up being part of ICL which of course became part of Fujitsu Group – i.e. it’s part of my corporate history. The quote certainly resonates when you think about how many of our  jobs can be attributed indirectly to the implementation of the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) in November 1951 at the London head office of J Lyons & Co.    The team including John Pinkerton and David Caminer brought LEO in to existence and its first job was to calculate the Lyons weekly bakery distribution run.  I would argue that David Caminer became Britain’s first Systems Analyst – and how many of those roles or the various modern variants are there in the business world today?  Well, to look at it another way, I’ve just seen a tweet suggesting that in India there is an estimated 2.5m people working directly or indirectly in the IT industry. That may be aA small number compared to the total population but it’s hugely significant in the wealth creation contribution to that economy.

Of course it would be a wonderful talent to foresee the importance of events like the LEO deployment as they happen rather than in retrospect.  I’m not claiming to be that visionary but I do think it is clear we are genuinely living through an inflection point in how information technology enables and drives our world.  If we look at the developed world, information technology is pervasive in our daily lives with smartphones, laptops, tablets, internet connected televisions, games consoles, etc. – and a huge infrastructure to support their use.  6 of the top 10 in Interbrand’s 2011 global brand table are technology companies. I think we would all agree that our world has become inescapably and increasingly pervasively digital.

I think we can see a potential advancement that may become as significant as the LEO in the today’s supercomputering arena.  The potential implications of the raw computing power of the Fujitsu K Supercomputer (the most powerful computer in the world today), are immense and fundamental to how our digital world is evolving.  I will return to this topic in my next blog post to outline my case for this bold assertion!

Clearly LEO was just one key milestone in the dawning of this computing age – we should also remember the world’s first computers at Bletchley Park (indeed, Ian Mitchell recently wrote about remembering the work of the Bletchley Park pioneers).   Key innovations tend not to be isolated to single events and it is true that the LEO came to life because of the team’s research visits to the USA where they met people working on the ENIAC (US Army Ballistics computer) and on returning to the UK they supported the work carried out at Cambridge University on the EDSAC.   Innovation is an important aspect of our world that needs to be nurtured, respected and funded, because the other way of looking at that US Department of Labor quote, is to ask which jobs will not be around in six years’ time?

In the current economic climate it is all too easy to become short-sighted and cull initiatives that lead to innovations that enable revenue and profit of the future.  I would dearly love to have my place in a key milestone innovation that is recognised in the future, probably unlikely but not impossible. So think forwards, act to create the future; what will be your LEO story?