The coming era of human computing | A Smarter Planet Blog

By Don Haderle, Father of DB2 and Pat Selinger, IBM Fellow.

Information technology has gone through a number of inflection points over the past century. And each brought along dramatic changes, impacting the very way we live and work.

From the Hollerith census tabulator in 1890 to ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) in 1947; the IBM mainframe in 1964 to the personal computer in 1982; to mobile devices today with more applications than most computers had 30 years ago.

What used to be arcane and only useable by a bunch of dweebs is now commonplace in businesses and used every day by the masses.

Inventions such as the disk drive and the relational database laid the groundwork to store and organize information, allowing applications to manage all manner of business functions and people to share and access all manner of information.  In 1970 one megabyte of disk storage cost $300. Today one megabyte of direct access storage costs 1/10 of one cent. That’s a 300,000 time improvement. Large databases in 1970 were a couple of gigabyte. Today large databases are terabyte (1,000 gigabyte) and really large databases are petabytes (1,000 terabytes).

Information is having a profound effect on industries. Books and printed matter were once dear, now information is virtually free. Today newspapers and periodicals are fighting for existence with the rise of news blogs, retailers are scrambling to reach their customers using social networks, and healthcare providers are getting closer to the holy grail of personalized medicine.

A significant volume of information is available in real-time (financial, satellite, oil pipelines, railroad sensors) with an explosion ahead of us provided by nano-sized sensors and technology to ingest and munch the data.

Technology is also bringing people together digitally. Now, 70 year old parents have access to email because their adult kids have helped them set it up to stay in contact, and share photos and videos of the grandkids. Only a few decades ago printed versions of encyclopedias were commonplace in our homes, now the information is available at our fingertips through cellphones, laptops, and gobs of devices.

Information is growing exponentially from new sources such as traffic sensors, smart phones and satellites making us more instrumented interconnected than ever before.  This phenomenon is known as Big Data. But we need innovation to extract value from the data – such as predicting an earthquake, a tsunami, social disruption, diseases.

Ordinary citizens record and comment on events and instantly their commentary is available to everyone. Witness the events in the Middle East and Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. We are swimming in a sea of information.

The next several years will bring a whole new level of innovation providing even more information but better organized and better digestible. After all, we still have difficulty finding something as simple as a good restaurant or a decent language translator.

Today in nearly every company in developed nations, employees walk in the door with newer technology on their mobile device than their employer puts on their desk.  Few of us sleep with our email more than five feet from our heads. We are connected to family, friends, business associates, and the world.

This interconnection is obvious in business. Services are available worldwide. Supply chains are global with companies competing for business on a global scale. An x-ray taken in a hospital in California is analyzed in real-time by an expert in Australia – cost, expertise, and availability determine where.

The speed of all of this information is accelerating, too.  The question now becomes what we do with it. IBM’s latest Watson computing system is one example of how technology is now pointed at helping people answer tough questions using available information. Human language is complicated – more difficult to understand than the stock market. Yet humans can manage it, based on years of neural conditioning. The amazing feat that Watson displayed in the Jeopardy contest was competing with humans where clues are presented in snippets of English text – Watson did well to win.

The last century has been all about breakthrough ways in harnessing and sharing information. We now have a new era of computing ahead of us that is more human than technology, with great potential for creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.

Don Haderle is an American computer scientist and IBM Fellow, best known for his work on relational database management systems. He led the architecture and design of DB2, one of the first commercial relational database management systems.

Patricia Selinger is an American computer scientist and IBM Fellow, best known for her work on relational database management systems. She played a fundamental role in the development of System R, a pioneering relational database implementation, and wrote the canonical paper on relational query optimization.