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Blog/2012/December/ Technology and Magic

Technology and Magic

Date: 18 Dec, 2012

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C Clarke.

Four hundred years ago, primitive cultures encountering Europeans for the first time would observe that the “Thunder Sticks” they carried could kill a man without touching him, terrifying magic. Is this the case now? Would new, never before seen technology be viewed as magic? Over the last thirty years, since I really started to take notice of it, technology has moved steadily and almost stealthily forward. Given the amount of science fiction we are exposed to, and the fact that technology tends to follow its lead, I don’t think that any new technology would be viewed as magic any more. I suspect that the reaction would be; “at last, we’ve been waiting for that”. Personally I’m waiting for anti-gravity boots; but while I’m waiting let me give an example of how far computer technology has journeyed in the last thirty years.

My mobile phone is slim and smooth, it has 16 Gigabytes of memory and it fits into my pocket. It occupies less space than my wallet, which isn’t that big. I like to hold it in my left hand and spin it round, turning it over and over, camera, screen, camera, and back to screen again. It feels nice as it slides round in the palm of my hand. It’s a very desirable object and fairly common, most of my friends have one. As I type, it rests on the desk next to me. The screen occupies virtually the whole of one side and on it I’m currently watching a high definition, wide screen video of ‘Jagger’, my son’s hairless cat, at play. I use the device for email, tweeting, surfing the net, sometimes as a phone and often for playing games. Some of the games are sophisticated and three dimensional, others are high resolution two dimensional platforms like the ones I used to play on my ZX Spectrum thirty years ago. It was that realisation that got me thinking. How big would the memory in my phone be if it were made up of the one kilobyte chips that were in my ZX Spectrum?

Brace yourself, here come the calculations, but don’t worry they don’t go on for too long.

  1. I’ve based my calculations on a typical 32k memory card from around 1982 holding 32 x 1k chips and measuring 150 x 100 x 10mm. To allow for cooling I’ve allowed a 15mm gap and 10mm for connecting the cards. This means that the centres between each of the cards would be 165 x 125 x 25mm. The volume in metres cubed would therefore be: 0.165 x 0.125 x 0.025 = 0.000515625m3
  2. How many 32k cards do we need to equal 16Gb? First, how many Kilobytes in 16 Gigabytes?
  3. 16 x 1024 = 16,384 Megabytes
  4. 16,384 x 1024 = 16,777,216 Kilobytes
  5. So the number of 32k cards would be: 16,777,216 / 32 = 524,288
  6. The volume of all these cards would be: 524,288 x 0.000515625m3 = 270.336 m3

This forms a cube with a side length of 6.466m (over 21 feet)

This is bigger than my house, and it doesn’t include any cooling plant or the small power station needed to supply it. The processor part of the equation is not quite so dramatic. Based purely on the number of transistors on the chip (8,500 in 1982 and approx. 286,000,000 now) this weighs in with a side length of 500mm (1.6ft). Not as sizable as the memory but still too big to fit in your pocket.

Computing isn’t a grand, spectacular, Earth shattering technology like the warp drive of Star Trek; which I am sure will fall into the “at last” category of human reaction when it materialises; but over the last thirty years progress has been significant. Computing didn’t get bigger and grander; it got smaller and more powerful. Along the way it merged together telecommunications, television, video recording, photography, music, games, satellite navigation and the internet into a pocket sized package almost without anyone noticing. Does it amaze you that your smart phone does these things, or do you just use the facilities on offer? Could it be that the technological leap leading to the smart phone was so stealthy and subtle that it didn’t even warrant an “at last”?

So what of the next thirty years? I can picture myself now as an old man, floating upside down over the rooftops having dropped the remote for the anti-gravity boots.

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