The evolution of automation shouldn’t be shown as stairs…

Everyone shares the slide “the evolution of computing.” Normally it starts out in the 60’s with mainframes, then moves to the PC and finally cloud. Some now include the next step that of IoT. I wonder about that genesis. In fact I wonder if the entire history of computing shouldn’t be thrown out, at least those slides and presented differently.

Innovators look at new ways to solve problems. Faster, smaller and easier are the modalities they apply. As I wonder about the evolution of computing. World War II and the need to quickly calculate a number of things was a huge driver for computing, but people were thinking about computational machines long before the world erupted into conflict. Babbage thought of one many years ago, and even before him there was the abacus a simple computing product. So perhaps instead we should change the argument to one of automation not computing.

The evolution of things – not the things of Dr. Seuss but all the things we use and consume in our daily lives. The first connected travel mugs allow you to check your phone to see the temperature of your drink. (kidding). The evolution of things takes a number of interesting turns. When we consider automation as the driver we begin to see a concept emerge. Computing, an extension of the desire to automate and provide structure. We see far back in the past where humans were able to count to 10 (hence after all our use of base 10, 10 fingers, 10 toes). Initial calculations done by simply counting. At some point that wasn’t good enough and someone made the first innovation. Something that represented 10 that you could hold or point at. Perhaps it was a mountain. Once you hit ten you pointed at the tallest mountain on the horizon, starting over at 11. The point being the initial automation was the grouping of things into larger grouping. We need to count beyond 10.

From there the process was automated in a number of ways. We produced coins and currency to represent equality. Corn = 1 hay penny (not real just a point). Money or goods equivalency became the way we traded. This produced a need for the abacus and other calculation machines. We were beyond the ability to keep track of numbers on our fingers.

The complexity of numbers created a pressure for automation. The pressure for automation struggled to produce something that made it easier to keep track. Over time things continued to evolve to the point where we began using machines. Initially devices like the abacus, then ledgers, calculators and computers. There is something beyond the computers of today, Quantum computing, but that lies just beyond the easily functional realm today. They are coming just not to your local accountant yet.

Everyone always shows that slide as a neat stair step. Look what we did made it easy to follow the path of evolution. But it wasn’t if we take the view of automation as the goal then the path took more than 5000 years. It was a neat stair step. Stairs are designed to make it easier to go up or down. They are equidistant so you don’t trip and fall. The evolutionary steps for automation would be one long step for 4000 years, and then over the course of the next 500 years a gradual rise resulting in a series of small steps and then over the past 40 years some huge steps. You wouldn’t want to be working out by running up and down these stairs.

Not stairs but fireworks. Flashes of brilliance followed by and preceded by darkness. Nothing there that takes us or shows us anything. But then an explosion. The abacus begat many other devices. The calculator begat the computer. The computer begat well that we don’t know yet but it is probably a combination of computing 2.0 (Quantum computing) and the Internet of Things (IoT, or including management and integration and call it Cyber Physical Systems (CPS). Each of them a brilliant firework that lasts for a time. The abacus may have been the longest firework on record (burning for more than a 1000 years). So, those stairs are gone.

The evolution of automation is more a fireworks display.


Automation dreamer