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High-Tech: The Incredible Depth of Simple Experiences

High-Tech: The Incredible Depth of Simple Experiences Image

Here’s the ‘studio version’ of a 5-minute talk I gave last night at O’Reilly’s Ignite event in Sebastopol.

The Ignite format of 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds is very demanding, but fun. I’ve taken only slight liberties with the format in this version.


Here’s the transcript, more or less:

We have all become accustomed to doing what appear to be simple things – such as viewing a website on our phone – that depend upon an incredibly deep, but largely unseen, technology base.

By standing on the shoulders of others, we can create amazing things with little, if any, knowledge of the countless inventions and endless incremental improvements we build upon. This is what makes high-tech such a wonderful thing.

When Steve Jobs created the iPhone, he had a vast trove of software development to draw upon, thanks to people like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Gary Kildall, Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and Linus Torvalds, to name just a few of the best-known pioneers.

An iPhone is, essentially, a very compact personal computer. The very idea of a personal computer was a radical notion when Ed Roberts created the Altair in 1975, and Steve Wozniak created the Apple II two years later.

Without microprocessors there could be no PCs. The first microprocessor was created at Intel 40 years ago, by Hoff, Shima, Faggin, and Mazor. The microprocessor reduced the heart of a computer to a single chip.

The trail goes back 200 years, to when Charles Babbage conceived of a mechanical computer. Then, in the 1940s, John von Neumann created what is essentially today’s computer architecture.

Computers require memory. In most early computers, it was core memory. In 1968, Robert Dennard invented the DRAM. After 40 years of improvements, we now have multi-billion-bit memory chips that cost less than a dollar.

Disk drives are another amazing and essential technology. The first disk, built in 1955, stored 4 megabytes on fifty 24-inch platters. Today’s 1.8-inch disks store 50,000 times as much.

Liquid crystals were first identified by Friedrich Reinitzer in 1888, and used to create a display by George Heilmeier in 1964. After half a century of development, we now have million-pixel screens in our pockets, and giant screens on our walls.

The browser has become our window on the world. Marc Andreesen created the Mosaic browser 20 years ago, bringing the internet, then used only by researchers, to life for ordinary people.

Andreesen built upon the web’s core HTTP protocol, HTML markup language, and URLs, all invented a couple years earlier by Tim Berners Lee. That’s the first web page, when the web was a simpler place – but the core structure was all there.

The Internet made computers much more interesting, by enabling every computer on the planet to communicate. This 1971 map shows all the computers connected to the Internet’s predecessor, the ARPAnet, created under the leadership of Bob Taylor.

The Internet works so well because it is built on a stunningly robust set of protocols that now rule the world’s communications. TCP/IP, created by Vint Cerf in 1974, builds on packet-switching, invented by Paul Baran in 1961.

A big part of what makes the Internet such a vast resource is the existence of massive server farms and the software that runs them. Most of us depend daily on the servers operated by Google and many others.

All of this depends on semiconductor technology, which is stunningly deep. At its heart is ultra-pure silicon. Today’s leading-edge chips are built on 12-inch wafers etched with details one-one-thousandth of the width of a hair.

Jack Kilby created the first integrated circuit in 1958. The number of transistors per chip has doubled every two years, a trend called Moore’s Law for semiconductor pioneer Gordon Moore.

The transistor, invented at Bell Labs in the late 1940s by Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain, is the fundamental building block of everything electronic. You probably have billions of them in your pocket.

To manufacture integrated circuits requires unfathomably sophisticated facilities. Semiconductor fabs cost billions of dollars, depend on hundreds of pieces of specialized equipment, and require dozens of ultra-pure chemicals.

Underlying all of semiconductor technology is quantum physics. We depend on quantum effects all day long. Without the theoretical breakthroughs of Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, and many others, we wouldn’t have integrated circuits.

There is astonishing technical depth behind the tools we use. Yet you can take almost all of it for granted. Each of us gets to add our personal layer of creativity on top of hundreds of years of breathtaking innovation. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

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