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Where would we be without the humble hard drive?

by Al Phillips

55 years ago the grandfather of modern data storage was put to commercial use for the first time. In 1956 IBM introduced the world to their brand new bundles of joy, 305 RAMAC and 650 RAMAC, the first computers to use a magnetic disk for data storage.

A press release from September 1956 boasted that it would revolutionise the business environment, allowing users to access information in an instant. I wonder if Thomas J. Watson Jr, IBM’s president at the time, knew how much of an impact this monolithic device (it was the size of a large fridge), with its 5MB capacity, would have on the world more than five decades later. Take a moment to think of everything we wouldn’t have today if the hard drive had never been invented.

If it all suddenly goes horribly wrong and we’re suddenly transported back to the early eighties, those of us who remember a time before the internet, and when a mobile phone was exactly that and nothing else, might be okay. But anyone born with a smart phone glued to their infant hand, I’m sorry to say, might be in trouble.

Nonetheless, we have progressed in leaps and bounds, so what’s over the techie horizon?

We have robotic limbs, and even a bionic heart, but the one thing that the boffins are really keen on is the human brain. Recreating the abilities of the old grey matter is beyond current technological abilities, but scientists have been working on it for years. IBM have built a microchip, which is the closest to the real thing so far. SyNAPSE has been designed like a brain, mimicking the processing of information over the criss-crossing of tiny “neurons”, joined together by even tinier “synapses”.

Star Trek intruduced us to the tractor beam, you know, moving an object with a beam of energy. Ten years ago scientist achieved this; okay, so they were only able to manipulate a microscopic protein molecule. In 2011 scientists from Hong Kong and China published research claiming that they had calculated the conditions required to actually pull an object towards the source of a laser.

Why wait for the future when we can predict it? A supercomputer called Nautilus, based at the University of Tennessee scanned through more than 100m news articles, and was able to chart rising dissent in Egypt and Libya ahead of the revolutions, and managed to narrow-down the location of Osama Bin Laden to within 200km of Abbottabad, the town in northern Pakistan where he was discovered by US special forces in April 2011. The system can apparently be adapted to work in real time giving us the closest thing to foresight. I wonder if anyone has asked it for the lottery numbers?

Computers that learn and adapt are no longer the stuff of science fiction, but as soon as it starts looking at me funny with that big red eye and getting ideas above its station, I’m pulling the plug, none of this “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” nonsense.

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