Technology: The Cybernated Generation

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To perform their increasing tasks, computers are developing into formidable adulthood. Computermen claim that their machines are now entering a "third generation" in which the new science of microcircuitry and other advances in technology will enable them to reduce the bulkiness of computers, pack more ability into their frames and make them even more reliable and economical. Computers are now being banded together into "families"—compatible groups of machines, ranging from small to large, that are able to solve problems and perform functions from beginning to end by using a single language and program. To broaden the uses of computers, U.S. industry last year introduced 300 new "peripheral devices" to help out the machines—and will introduce at least as many this year.

"When these new machines realize their potential," says John Diebold, chairman of the Diebold Group, Inc., consultants in the computer field, "there will be a social effect of unbelievable proportions. This impact on society is still to come." Computermen have even been advised to get their machines out to "see life" in that society by setting up communications links between them and other computers in dispersed locations. Says R. M. Bloch, a vice president of Honeywell: "The computer that lacks an ability to communicate with the outside world is in danger of remaining an isolated marvel mumbling to itself in the air-conditioned seclusion of its company's data-processing room."

Baffling Blend. Much of the apprehension about the social effects of the computer arises from the machine's baffling blend of complication and simplicity. Basically, the digital computer is nothing but an electronic machine that can do arithmetic and retrieve information with incredible speed—but that very speed makes it, in its way, superhuman. Inside the computer's refrigerator-like cabinet dwells an intricate network of thin wires, transistors, and hundreds of thousands of tiny magnetized metal rings, all strung together into a memory-and arithmetic-processing unit. The location of each fact stored in the computer's memory is no bigger than the tip of a match, and the computer never forgets these locations.

The computer receives its information, called input, from magnetic disks, magnetic tapes, punched cards or typewriter-like keyboards that feed the memory unit. Each fact is first translated into binary language, a system using two as a base instead of ten as in the decimal system, and then fed into the computer. Once it has received a given fact, the computer relays it to its memory unit via electronic impulses that "store" the numerically defined fact in several metal rings.

When someone wishes to solve a problem, he defines the problem in computer language—a combination of letters, numbers, punctuation marks and mathematical symbols. This is the part of computer science called programming, which is a way of telling a machine what to do with its information in order to achieve a desired result. As instructions are fed to the computer in this special language, the machine sends electric impulses coursing through its innards at the speed of light (186,300 miles per second), checking on each metal ring to see if it contains the information sought.

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