Forty Years a Programmer – a Retrospective Look at the Future
By: Alan Levy
Lead Consultant, Embedded Systems
20th February 2020
5 minute read
Slightly more than 40 years ago I sat down for the first time in front of a keyboard and monitor in a computer lab on the campus of Durham University and typed my first “hello world” program, in C, into a computer running Unix. I’d love to say it compiled and ran the first time but I honestly can’t remember what happened next.
The one thing I don’t think I dreamed back then was that as I reached retirement I would still be typing C programs into computers running Unix (well, OK, Linux) on a QWERTY keyboard and viewing the text on a monitor. I guess I imagined that by now I’d be talking to my computers HAL 9000 style, albeit perhaps without the psychopathic killer personality. By the year 2020 computers were going to be as smart as us, smarter in fact. Keyboards would be museum exhibits. Programming computers would be like more like teaching children. Displays would be used just for the comfort factor of having something to look at while we talked to the computer or so that we could read our private messages rather than have them played out loud to us.
Back then when I thought about the computer of the future it was going to be small, portable, connected and super-intelligent. Something like the love child of a smartphone and Mr Spock from Star Trek, but please don’t think too hard about that one! In fact in many ways back then Star Trek was the blueprint for the future we all thought we were headed towards.
So here we are four decades on and what has changed? Well, the small, portable, connected thing happened, so chalk that one up to the futurists. Computers that can learn like children are sort of happening – a score draw there I think. The super-intelligent thing, a bit like nuclear fusion power generation, is still said to be 20 years away and maybe always will be. Despite much talk in recent years about “the singularity”, the jury is still very much out on that prediction. The warp drive is still very much in the realms of science fiction.
So what do I think I’ve learned during my career? Well, the world changes both quickly and slowly. Technology has indeed changed the face of the planet and is continuing to change the way of life for billions of people. On the other hand whatever may happen in the next 40 years, for now, I still type at a console, drive a petrol-powered car, watch television, shop on the high street, clean the carpet with a vacuum cleaner, vote by writing a cross on a piece of paper along with a hundred other everyday things that I was doing 40 years ago. If the futurists of the 1970s had been correct then by now I’d be talking to my computer, travelling in a flying car, watching holovision, getting all the goods and services I need from my own personal robot and voting by pressing a button.
What do I really expect to happen in the next 40 years? Well, a lot of the things I just mentioned are highly likely to change. Computers are insinuating themselves into everyday items and vanishing from sight as they do, fossil fuels really have got to go, broadcast television is already merging with the Internet, the high street is starting to reinvent itself, there are vacuum cleaners that don’t need our help to do their job and I really don’t want to talk about the future of democracy just now thank you.
What about the future of programming? A little cautionary tale presents itself here. Shortly after I left university and started work as a lowly programmer somebody came up with a revolutionary new programming language they entitled “The Last One” because it was the last programming language you were ever going to need. I never actually used it but apparently, you gave the computer a few brief, descriptive instructions and then let it get on with programming itself. This news sent a shiver down my spine because it seemed to presage the end of programming as a career. Shortly afterwards somebody else came up with another programming language that they called “The Next One”. We all sniggered and got on with our lives while both of these languages vanished without a trace. These days I can generally recognise the sound of a bandwagon rolling from halfway around the planet and I wouldn’t be so easily fooled, or at least so I fondly tell myself.
Another anecdote comes from about a decade later. One of my colleagues at the large multinational consultancy we both worked for at the time made a prediction about sales growth in a particular technology market that he had been analysing. The prediction turned out to be precisely right and champagne all round was the order of the day. Of course, nobody batted an eyelid about all of the other, grossly inaccurate predictions he had made at the same time.
I think the point I’m really trying to make is that predicting the future is a mug’s game. Sometimes the possibilities are obvious and the trends are predictable to the point of apparent inevitability. More often the future is hidden in a mire of ifs, buts, maybes and things you just didn’t know about at the time. The worst part is that you can’t even reliably distinguish which predictions belong to which category.
So when somebody tries to tell you how it’s going to be in 5, 10, 20 or especially 40 years’ time, the best thing to do is to smile sweetly, nod as if in agreement, and get on with your life.
Thanks to Alan for his long service at Plextek and have a wonderful retirement!!