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Capable Computing

Computing that is good enough.

We’ve come to expect that next year everything will be faster, and just a bit cheaper. In fact we’ve decided that it’s the law. In 1965, Gordon Moore made a prediction that came to be known as Moore’s Law. He stated that each year the number of components per integrated circuit would double, and that this trend would continue for at least another decade. Ten years later in 1975 he revised his prediction, saying that it would double every two years. Remarkably this prediction held for the next forty years. However earlier in the year Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel, confirmed what many had expected that “…our cadence today is closer to two and a half years than two.”

The last fifty years have been exceptional time, and have given many of us that have grown up in the shadow of Moore’s Law a false impression of how the world works. Most of human history is static, and progress is slow. Unlike today, throughout most of history the technology your children would grow up with would be very similar to the tools and technology you remembered from your own childhood.

While I’m not quite sure I believe it myself, there is an argument that we’re reaching the limits of our current technology, and that the pace of progress will slow dramatically. That, at least as far as computing is concerned, we’re looking at a mature technological base. It’s possible your children will grow up with computers that are not much faster than you yourself are used to. But that doesn’t mean that it is going to look the same.

Like many of the technological advances in the last hundred years the computer industry was born, and grew up, in the shadow of the first and second World Wars. Like the baby boomers, your smartphone is a child of the post-war years now grown to adulthood. However Chris Anderson, co-founder and CEO of 3DR, has recently argued that a lot of the tools and technologies we use today as makers are the peace dividend of another war, the smart phone war, arguing that, “when giants battle we all win.”

This technology dividend is very evident when you start to look around. Sensors such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and even cameras, are now trivially cheap and readily available. The ubiquity of the ARM processor, used in pretty much every smart phone, has dramatically dropped the price of computing, and whole companies such as Adafruit and Sparkfun have been build around packaging this technology and making it readily accessible to makers.
 
Capable computing, that is to say computing that is “good enough,” is now available for just a few dollars. The ESP8266 system-on-chip, a general use micro-controller with Wi-Fi and — albeit somewhat limited — GPIO, can be found in quantity for less than $2. The new C.H.I.P. a single-board computer, a direct fallout from the cheap tablet industry, is just $9, something that seems almost inconceivable even to those of us that have grown up with Moore’s Law. Because after fifty years of Moore’s Law we’re getting to a place where computing is not just cheap, it’s essentially free. As technology matures, it becomes cheaper. A $2 micro-controller today leads directly to a $0.20 micro-controller tomorrow, which leads to the $0.02 micro-controller eventually, which makes concepts like smart dust and real ubiquitous computing, possible.

While we might no longer be expecting computing to become orders of magnitude faster, or smaller, we may well have reached the point where our computing is “good enough.” Over the next decade or two we can, perhaps, expect to see general purpose computing, sensors, and wireless networking, bundled up in millimetre-scale sensor motes that can drift in the air currents around us. The dust around us will become smart.

The beauty of a mature technological base is that we can finally take stock of what we’ve accomplished over the last fifty years and learn to use it well. The beauty of capable computing, computing that is good enough, and cheap enough, is that it can be used in ways that expensive computing can’t. Cheap, capable, computing will enable a host of uses that were never possible before. After all, if your computing is cheap enough to throw away, what is it that you will be able to do tomorrow that you couldn’t do yesterday?