This article appeared in the April, 1979, issue of The Futurist. The author's address at the end is no longer current.


The Microelectronic Revolution

by Jon Roland

Today's technology is packing the power of yesterday's large, expensive computers into tiny electronic circuits smaller than a printed character on this page. These "microelectronic" circuits are being mass-produced at low cost, and they are appearing in thousands of new applications from pocket calculators and digital watches to personal computers and space probes.

Technology has dealt us another surprise, one that will soon radically transform the ways we live and do business and the skills we need. For 30 years there has been steady improvement in the performance of digital electronic components and growth in the power of computer systems built out of them. The cost of this performance has also been falling, but until recently it has remained high enough to restrict the market for computers to a few wealthy and sophisticated users with important applications. This situation has dramatically changed.

What has happened is the development and widespread use of large-scale integrated circuits, consisting of hundreds of thousands of components packed onto a single tiny chip of material that can be mass-produced for a few cents each. This has made it possible to build computers and other systems in large numbers at low enough costs to open a mass market and permit the costs of development and programming to be shared among a large number of users.

The pocket calculator and digital watch are only the beginning. There are now more than 200,000 low-cost personal computers being used in homes, offices, schools, and factories, and that number is growing rapidly. During the past four years there has been an explosion of personal computing activity, resulting in scores of publications, conventions, clubs, and hundreds of new manufacturers offering products in the field, many of them begun in garages and basements by enterprising individuals with little capital or experience.

During the past five years, microelectronic technology has increased the number of components that can be put on a chip by a factor of 100, and this rate of progress is likely to continue for at least another 10 years, resulting in a 10,000-fold increase in performance for the same cost. At this rate, by 1985 one will be able to purchase for less than $200 a pocket-sized personal computer that is faster and has more memory than the most powerful computer in the world today.

Many integrated circuits, such as those used in calculators and watches, are specialized for a particular application. Of increasing importance, however, are general-purpose integrated circuits that can perform any task programmed by the user. These general-purpose devices are called microprocessors, and when they are combined with memory circuits and input-output devices, the result is a microcomputer, which can be used either as a stand-alone computer, linked into a computer or communications network, or dedicated to a particular task.

The low cost of microcomputers often makes it more economical to dedicate one to a particular task than to share a large computer with other tasks or to design and build a specialized device for that application. It is much less costly to correct errors in the programs, or software, than it is to correct errors in the hardware, especially after the device is in production and being delivered.

During the next few years, this microelectronic intelligence is likely to be incorporated into almost every product large enough to contain it, including many that use only a tiny fraction of its enormous capabilities. Many of these products will become linked together by a worldwide communications system into a vast network that will dominate our lives and fundamentally change the world in which we live.

The Potential to Be Realized

Technological progress results from realizing limited opportunities offered by natural principles or by the situation. For example, the Industrial Revolution resulted from improvements in the efficiency of conversion of energy from one form into another. Over a century, there was about a hundred-fold improvement in efficiency, from less than 1% to more than 50%. We are now nearing the theoretical limits on efficiency, so little further improvement in this direction is possible. Technological progress usually takes the form of an "S curve," rising slowly at first, then more and more rapidly until natural limits are approached, then leveling off somewhat short of those theoretical limits.

Some of the principal problems of futuristics are to identify the directions in which progress remains possible, the rates at which such progress is likely to occur, the limits to progress in each direction, and the impacts of progress and its limits on human life.

There are three directions in which progress remains to be made in microelectronics technology: (1) gate density, or the number of switching elements that can be packed into a given volume of space; (2) switching speed, or the number of times a switching operation can occur in a given period of time; and (3) transmission speed, or the speed at which signals can travel over the lines between switching elements. The combination of these factors is called throughput density.

During the past 20 years, gate density has increased by four orders of magnitude, a factor of 10,000. A change of two orders of magnitude, an increase by a factor of 100, has occurred within the last five years, and two more can be expected during the next five years. After that, progress may slow somewhat.

Three more orders of magnitude will bring us to the gate density of the human brain. Four more orders of magnitude will then remain before the theoretical limits of quantum electrodynamics are reached. About one order of magnitude remains for switching speed and another for transmission speed, which is limited by the speed of light. Therefore, there are about nine orders of magnitude of potential improvement in throughput density before natural limits are reached. For various reasons, the last two orders of magnitude will probably not be available to us, but an improvement in this direction by seven orders of magnitude -- most of it during the next 20 years -- would have a revolutionary impact. Remember that it only took two orders of magnitude improvement in the efficiency of energy conversion over a century to produce the Industrial Revolution. Devices that could bring three more orders of magnitude improvement in throughput density are already under development in laboratories and will be in production in seven to ten years. Even if all progress in this direction were to stop today, the impact would be revolutionary.

By 1985, today's microprocessor will be succeeded by the nanoprocessor, with a throughput density 1,000 times as great. The picoprocessor, with a throughput density one million times as great, will involve circuits on the molecular level and will probably have to be grown rather than constructed under external control.

If a picoprocessor could be combined with memory of comparable speed and compactness, and the resulting picocomputer implanted in a person's skull and interfaced with the brain, that person could have more computer power than exists in the world today and all the stored knowledge of humanity as accessible as any brain cell. Such a thing could fundamentally change human nature, and it is closer to realization than bionic limbs, organs, or senses.

Breaking Through the Costs

Dramatic improvements in physical performance are less important to our lives, however, than improvements in economic performance. Research in high-energy physics is encountering costs that are rising so fast that it is difficult to imagine economic applications for many of the processes discovered. By contrast, in semiconductor technology the cost of fabricating an integrated circuit chip remains much the same regardless of the number of components it contains, so the improvement in physical and economic performance has been about the same.

At present and for the foreseeable future, this rapidly improving technology will be used for both the central processor and the main memory of a computer system, but the ultimate cost of a complete , computer system must also include the cost of the secondary or mass memory and of the input-output devices. As it happens, rapid progress has been made and remains to be made in the technology of mass storage as well, and there has been dramatic improvement in the performance-cost ratio of secondary memory systems such as magnetic disks. New technologies, such as "magnetic bubble" and "charge-coupled" devices promise to continue this progress. However, if progress continues in the performance-cost ratio of main memory technology, it will ultimately become cheap enough to be used for mass memory as well, and by the end of the century we may be able to store the contents of the entire Library of Congress in a volume no larger than a single book costing no more than a single book does today.

A factor that is important both to the overall cost of a system and to the range of uses to which that system can be put is its power requirement. As it happens, the amount of power consumed by a chip also remains about the same regardless of the number of components it contains, so the power required to support a given level of performance has been declining as dramatically as the cost of fabrication has. This has made it possible to build systems that are cheaper, smaller, more reliable, and more portable, and to use such systems in places and under conditions not previously possible.

Input-output devices are the major remaining obstacle to reducing the overall cost of computer systems. For most video displays we now use the cathode-ray tube, which is large, expensive, and power-hungry. Fortunately, flat-screen video displays, essentially large integrated circuits, have now entered the prototype stage and should be in volume production by 1981 or 1982. They will have full color and much higher resolution than cathode-ray tubes, and the ultimate cost of screens smaller than 60 cm will probably be less than $20.

Keyboards have remained expensive because they have had moving parts and have been designed to give the user a familiar "feel," but keyboards consisting of a single plate with embedded touch-activated but non-moving keys are now available for $50, and the ultimate cost will probably be less than $5 Many people are finding that the feel of traditional keyboards is not as important as they thought.

The hard-copy printer is likely to be the last peripheral to be made inexpensive, but a digital xerographic process is in the works that should soon make possible a high-quality high-speed printing device that prints a page at a time of computer output consisting of anything from text in any style of type to halftone images and colors, all with an ultimate resolution as good or better than current photography can achieve. It is difficult to predict what the ultimate cost of such a device is likely to be, but it will probably be more than $500.

The present cost of a complete microcomputer system suitable for a small business, with a video terminal, printer, and disk system, is about $7,000. We can expect that by 1988, the cost of a complete nanocomputer system will be less than $700, and possibly as low as $300. Most of this cost will be for the printer, but by that time, the use of paper as a medium of communication is likely to be in rapid decline. Except for the printer, the device could be smaller than a pocket calculator.

The Coming Personal Computer Network

The general-purpose microcomputer of today is the forerunner of a universal personal accessory that will be more important in our daily lives than the clock, the telephone, the typewriter, television, the calculator, the recorder, the copier, the checkbook, the camera, mail, books, or files, because it will replace all of these things.

Microcomputers today are like telephones were when only a few people had them and before they were all connected together into a single network. Interconnection by telephone lines is already happening, but the full potential of a personal computer network will come with communications lines that have a greater information-carrying capacity, or "bandwidth," than existing telephone lines do. Optical fibers can provide this capacity, and they are already proving to be reliable and cost-effective. Optical fiber lines can be expected to replace electric wires for communications during the next few years, and as this happens, the impact of microcomputers will be increasingly felt in our daily lives.

It is difficult to say what this universal personal accessory is likely to be called. It might be called a "comp" or perhaps a "term" since it will be both a computer and a terminal. The Swedes use the word dator for both computers and terminals, and we can use that word in this article for the device we can expect. There will be a bewildering profusion of such devices, with a variety of capabilities and prices, although they will all need to operate according to certain standards. The most common dator will likely be a pocket-sized, hand-held device that unfolds to reveal an alphanumeric keyboard, flat color screen, speaker, microphone, video camera, and receptacles for plugging in small mass-storage modules. It will have one or more jacks for plugging into the communications network and perhaps an antenna for communication through local relay stations or satellites. Some dators may be small enough to be worn like wristwatches.

The dators we can envision during the 1980s will combine all the capabilities of the largest computers of today. They will be able to send, receive, store, and process data of all kinds in ways that can now only be dreamed about, including voice, video, music, text, and sensor readings. Plugged into the network, they will permit communication with any other such devices in any number or combination anywhere within reach of any form of communications. A single such dator will be able to provide interpersonal communications, conduct financial transactions, report the heart condition of the bearer to the nearest medical facility, and offer a choice of every variety of audiovisual entertainment.

During the transition period, more and more functions now performed by separate devices will be combined into a single device, costs will fall, and more and more people will acquire them. As more and more of them are interconnected together, demand will grow for improved communications services and for a variety of information services and software, including publicly accessible databases of all kinds. Many existing communications media, such as books, periodicals, and letters, will probably decline. The Library of Congress may emerge as a publicly accessible database, with other libraries becoming reduced to archival repositories. Schools as local centers of learning may become less important as more and more instruction and examination is conducted via the datornet. Data are likely to emerge as the major item of commerce.

The emergence and universal use of the dator will reduce or eliminate many familiar products, services, and occupations, and radically transform most of the rest. Although we can anticipate that human resistance to change will slow the spread and use of dators and soften some of their impacts, enough people will adopt them rapidly enough to put those who fail to adapt at a serious disadvantage.

Security and Privacy

The widespread use of computers has aroused concerns about controlling unauthorized access to private data and communications and controlling decisions or transactions by unauthorized persons or in unauthorized ways. Demands for privacy come into conflict with demands for information, and opportunities abound for severe and subtle abuses by governments, businesses, and individuals.

A theoretical development that will profoundly affect this situation is the discovery of a class of encoding and decoding functions called "trapdoor codes" that are virtually unbreakable and potentially usable for all forms of communication.

A trapdoor code is a pair of mathematical functions, an encoder and a decoder, each of which is based on a prime factor of a large number. Knowing the encoder doesn't help someone find the decoder, because that would involve finding the prime factors of the large number, and no easy way has been found to do that. It is feasible to use a trapdoor code based on prime factors of a number of 200 digits. Finding the prime factors of such a number, using the fastest available computer today, would require more than four million years of computation. If computers become faster, one can always use numbers with more digits.

Trapdoor codes can also be used for positive identification. An identifying sequence, such as a name, can first be transformed by a trapdoor decoder, then embedded in the message and the combination encoded. The result, as revealed by reversing the process, could only have been sent by the party identified.

Microelectronic technology makes trapdoor coding economically feasible for use in all kinds of communications and transactions, and trapdoor coding can make all kinds of communications and transactions secure against eavesdropping and tampering.

Another way this technology can be used to achieve security is based on the fact that it will be possible to combine the microprocessor and memory on a single chip in such a way that the resulting microcomputer can be used to perform a given task without making it possible for anyone to read its memory or get its data or programs out. This will make it possible to provide software stored in read-only memory (ROM) on such a chip, which can be used but not copied. A person could have his own unique trapdoor decoder stored on such a chip in his personal dator, which he could use to decode trapdoor-encoded messages sent to him, but which even he could never discover or reveal.

Transactions and Banking

It has long been foreseen that computers would eventually make possible the electronic transfer of funds from an account in one bank to an account in another without the need for paper transfer instruments, such as checks or cash. Banks already use such electronic funds transfers (EFT) among themselves, and seek EFT for all banking transactions as a way to reduce the high costs of handling paper. Many financial experts have predicted that within a few years we will have a cashless, checkless society in which all transactions are conducted electronically.

The movement toward EFT has met a great deal of resistance, however, from the public, which fears that EFT would increase the risk of costly mistakes or theft, reduce privacy, encourage greater government intervention and control or be vulnerable to disaster or sabotage. Progress toward EFT has been hindered by the lack of low-cost, widely available transaction terminals, the high cost of reliable data communications lines, the lack of secure methods of identifying transacting parties, and the lack of adequate back-up systems. (For more on EFT, see "The Checkless/ Cashless Society? Don't Bank on It!" by Kathryn Humes, THE FUTURIST, October 1978.)

For many purposes, a cashless, checkless society would be highly desirable. Most crimes for gain depend on the use of cash, and organized crime as we know it would probably become impossible if cash were eliminated. If all financial transactions could be monitored by the government, it might be able to intervene more effectively to control inflation and avoid recession. Tax collection could be made automatic and much less painful, both in impact and in the burden of bookkeeping imposed. Sound economic planning by business, government, and individuals might become possible in a way that it now is not. It could permit a more efficient allocation of resources and more accurate investment strategies.

Microcomputer technology and the advent of the dator will make the cashless, checkless society feasible and may answer the legitimate objections to EFT. The dator will provide the features needed in a universal transaction terminal, and the communications network to support the dator will provide the facilities needed to make cash and checks unnecessary. Trapdoor codes will provide secure communications and positive identification between transacting parties and banks. Low-cost non-volatile memory systems will make possible permanent, non-alterable records of all transactions.

If the datornet is used for EFT, what will be the role of local banks? There may cease to be one. Banks will no longer be needed as repositories of funds or as places where people go to conduct banking business. Thus they will no longer need massive buildings or drive-in facilities. Small local offices will be adequate for such things as appraising loan collateral and managing local assets. Banks as such will disappear, leaving one or more worldwide banknets that provide a variety of financial services, as is done today by credit card systems.

The merger of local banks into one or more banknets has been foreseen as a result of EFT, but the combination of the datornet, use-only microcomputers, and trapdoor codes offers the possibility of direct dator-to-dator funds transfers without banks! EFT security will involve controlling access to fund accounts in such a way that credits or debits to any account can only be made by authorized debits from or credits to another such account, using trapdoor codes. However, if this can be done within banks, it can also be done within dators by means of use-only microcomputers programmed for that purpose. This would mean that a person could have an account within his own dator that could only be increased or decreased by transfer from or to another such account in someone else's dator. Such accounts would be the functional equivalent of cash! Individuals could transfer funds to one another in complete privacy without the mediation of banks at all! The government would have to regulate the production of the use-only microcomputer embedded within the dator that would manage funds transfers, so that a user could not tamper with it and "counterfeit" additional funds, and thus availability and use of such devices would need to be regulated or restricted. We can anticipate that such availability and use will become a subject of intense political controversy.

A similar situation could arise with respect to things like stock market and securities transactions. Transfers could be made directly without the intervention of exchanges or brokers. An investor could even conduct his transactions under dator control, without human attention or intervention. But imagine the effects of too many investors using the same automated investment program at the same time!

Effective government regulation and taxation might be difficult to enforce, however. Even a government requirement that all transactions be accomplished through the mediation of some monitoring agency would not work. Taxation based on funds transfers alone could easily be evaded by reverting to barter trading, which a sophisticated datornet would make practical. Taxation based on all transfers of anything of value would face the problem of defining value in situations where value is subjective and might be arbitrarily redefined to reduce tax liability. The government might have to rely on resource-use taxes for its revenue base, or even to abandon taxation altogether and simply manipulate the datornet, diverting products and services from private to public use by a kind of "draft" system.

Dedicated Applications

The general-purpose dator, used as a computer or a terminal, is not the only application of microprocessors that will revolutionize our lives. For every microprocessor used in this way, hundreds will be used in dedicated applications, doing a limited set of tasks according to programs not alterable by the user. The trend now is to incorporate microprocessors into almost any product large enough to contain one.

In many microcomputer systems today, one microprocessor is used as the central processing unit (CPU), but other microprocessors are used as controllers in each of the peripherals, some accessible to programming by the user and some not. There may be one in the disk controller, one in each of the video terminals or printers, and perhaps one managing communications with other systems. Within the central processing unit, there may be more than one, with each specializing in some function, such as memory management, input-output, or numeric processing. As it becomes feasible to combine a microprocessor with a full complement of random-access read-write and read-only memory on a single chip, the result will be a kind of universal "do-anything" component that can be customized by the user for almost any task from the trivial to the awesome.

The range of potential applications of dedicated microcomputers is almost unlimited. Automobile manufacturers are already introducing microprocessors in automobiles to control timing, ignition, and fuel flow, and plan later to have microprocessors control braking and transmission and to monitor performance and detect deficiencies. Accessories already available can control speed; indicate fuel flow and quantity remaining, time and distance to destination, and distance until refueling is required; and monitor the condition of the vehicle.

Typewriter manufacturers are discovering that by incorporating a microcomputer into their typewriters and adding a few additional controls, they can upgrade their typewriters into advanced text-processing systems at little additional cost. In the future, all typewriters will likely be advanced text-processors.

Another dedicated application of microprocessor technology is access control. It is now possible, using a microcomputer, to have a relatively low-cost system in which a person, to gain access to a restricted area, must key in a combination or present a specially-coded card at the door. The system controls who gets past a door and when, and keeps a record of all passages, whether a person is in or out of an area, and time spent in each area. Authorizations can be changed in seconds without the expense of providing new keys or cards.

Such systems can also be used with various sensors such as smoke or intrusion detectors to monitor an area, trigger an alarm, call the police or fire department, activate fire control equipment, operate a camera, awaken occupants, and direct evacuation.

Low-cost microcomputer systems can be used to monitor and control environmental conditions and use of utilities, to optimize the distribution of temperature, humidity, ventilation, and lighting conditions within budget constraints, to control windows, vents and solar collectors, to detect flooding or failure of appliances or systems, and to provide guidance on changing patterns of use to conserve resources.

Arrays of microprocessors can be used to make far more complex systems in which each microprocessor performs part of the whole task, with the array acquiring the capabilities and emulating the characteristics of almost any system for operations or data processing.

In the not too distant future we will see microcomputers used to control aircraft and air traffic, with on-board and ground-based systems functioning together. We may eventually see self-operating motor vehicles that can drive themselves to selected destinations, reading signs along the way, avoiding other vehicles and traffic hazards, and adapting to road conditions; ships that can load themselves, travel to their destinations, and unload themselves without crews; and trains and subway systems that operate without human intervention except for selection of destination.

Game playing on computers is not confined to trivial video games, nor are large machines required to play complex games such as chess. At the last two West Coast Computer Faires, microcomputer chess tournaments attracted numerous entrants that played fairly strong games. This situation can be expected to improve, and it will probably not be very long before microcomputers will be serious contenders for master ratings. Eventually microcomputers will be able to outplay humans at almost any game, or to play at any specified level of proficiency. From these recreational games, it is only natural to go on to more serious simulation games and simulations of real processes to be used in policy-making.

Another area of interest is robotics, the making of mobile, manipulative systems capable of fairly sophisticated and useful operations. Only the microprocessor can make possible the development of the true robot, able to perform routine assistance in household, business, and industrial situations. Although much remains to be done before a really impressive robot will work, the microprocessor will provide the brain needed.

Many general-purpose systems are likely to be dedicated in actual use. A typical small business might use several microcomputer systems in word-processing, plus one each for payroll, accounts receivable, accounts payable and fixed assets inventory, and merchandise inventory, with all sharing the same database and able to exchange information with one another, under the direction of one system that would manage the database and do general ledger reporting. They could swap tasks as required in case of overload in one area or breakdown of one of the units. Each could also monitor the others to insure reliability and optimize performance.

The Future of Education

Much has been written about computer-assisted instruction (CAI) and the teaching of computer science and programming in the schools, but the high cost of computer hardware has heretofore prevented the widespread use of computers for these purposes. That situation has now suddenly and dramatically changed. Microcomputer instruction kits are inexpensive enough to provide one for every student. Perhaps the best way to teach computer science is to get a microcomputer kit, put it together, and learn to program it. Previously, the idea of letting the students have access to the insides of computers was unthinkable. Soon it may be standard operating procedure.

Learning computer science in this way is much easier and more pleasant than it has been in the past, too. Microcomputers are fun in ways that the larger machines are not. Students find themselves learning design, construction, maintenance, and programming in an easy, natural way when they can work with their own personal system.

And learn they must if we are to have the skills needed to support this new technology. Within a few years, the ability to program and use microcomputers will be as important as being able to read, write, type, drive, or use the telephone. Educational authorities have an urgent need to get these programs under way.

Microcomputers will also make feasible computer-assisted instruction. The only thing holding it up now is the software, and perhaps the best way to develop that is to turn instructors loose on microcomputers and let them develop the software through actual use. The situation will be somewhat chaotic for a while, but it will straighten itself out. The main thing is to get started. If people wait until they know what they are doing, they will never get anywhere!

Educators who are introducing microcomputers are also discovering that they can be used for a host of other functions, such as preparing, conducting, and grading examinations, processing records, and doing the bookkeeping, accounting, and reporting for the school, which frees personnel from routine administrative chores and lets them concentrate on teaching.

For those concerned about "getting back to basics" in education, a strong microcomputer-based program is likely to be the answer. Computers force people to do things right. They impose a very valuable discipline on the way people perform. They are impartial, instructive, and demanding. Students cannot get by without paying attention. The student interacts with the instructional computer in an active way that sustains interest and improves the rate and quality of learning. The program can adapt itself from second to second to the particular needs of each student and can identify problems that may require the intervention of a human teacher, social worker, or medical worker.

Of course, education is not confined to children. The microcomputer as terminal will open the educational resources of the world to everyone to a degree that is not now possible. When the Library of Congress is available to anyone on his own personal microcomputer, and one can operate out of one's home or place of work, at any time of the day or night, and when the instruction and examination is immediate and interactive, then higher education and continuing education become easier, less costly, more convenient, and more meaningful. Institutions of higher learning will no longer be unable to grant doctorates for lack of an expensive graduate research library, because the entire Library of Congress will be as close as the nearest comm jack.

Of course, for the Library of Congress and other such information resources to be thus accessible will require programs to convert their contents to machine-readable, rapidly accessible form. Congress will need to allocate the funds to make this conversion and to develop the multichannel communications system needed to make these records available. Some method of charging users will have to be developed, together with a method of paying royalties on proprietary materials. Opposition from the publishing industry will have to be overcome.

A first step in this direction will be for the Library of Congress to accept machine-readable materials and make them available over data lines to customers. Later, the materials now in printed form could be converted, beginning with those items most needed. Eventually, the fees derived from such a service might become an important source of revenue for the government.

Strategy for Occupational Survival

The microprocessor represents a true revolution, and its potential impact on future job skills and prospects for employment needs to be understood by everyone.

It is a useful exercise in forecasting to assume the general use within the next few years of personal computers as terminals, and then systematically to survey the businesses and occupations listed in the yellow pages of the telephone directory of any large metropolitan area, considering the likely impact of the microprocessor revolution on each. The result of such a survey is staggering: More than half of the occupations represented in such listings will cease to exist! Most of the others will be radically affected. Most businesses and industries will have to be extensively restructured, and many will not survive the change. The effect is likely to be traumatic. Many young people now training for their future occupations are likely to find that these occupations will no longer exist when they are ready to begin their careers.

Contemporary society is facing the greatest occupational upheaval in history, and we need to plan for it. Many people will emerge from this upheaval permanently unemployable, and society must find ways of distributing the product of the economy on some basis other than productivity, or else let a substantial part of the population starve. At the same time, there will be a critical shortage of advanced skills, most of them associated with microprocessors and their applications. There will be a need for the entire population to be computer-literate, and unless such literacy is imparted from early childhood, a substantial part of the population may find that they lack the basic skills needed to get along in their daily lives.

It is already too late to avoid many of these problems. Many experts anticipated that the performance of computers would improve dramatically, and some anticipated that computers might eventually become small and inexpensive, but almost no one anticipated that small, powerful, inexpensive computers would become available so soon.

Capital investment will also be affected by advances in microprocessor technology. The digital watch industry has provided a recent foretaste of this impact. The rapid proliferation of small digital watch manufacturers was followed by the collapse of most of these new firms and a general slump in the older mechanical watch industry. The instability within the watch and timepiece industry has not substantially impacted most other areas of the economy. But microcomputers connected into a vast network that spans the planet will impact everything. No investor who ignores this development can hope to succeed during the decade ahead.

At present, the principal obstacles to the diffusion of microcomputers are not economic or technological, but cultural. Lack of computer-related skills and unfamiliarity with the ways computers can be used are largely responsible for holding back more rapid progress. People don't know how to use computers yet, but they are learning.

Two years ago, Robert Noyce, president of Intel, a leading manufacturer of microprocessors, said that his company had the technical capability of putting an IBM 370 on a single microprocessor chip, but he didn't know if there was a market for such a thing. By that he meant that to justify doing that, they would have to sell at least 20,000, and it didn't look like there were that many people in the world who could effectively use that much computing power. A couple of weeks ago, Noyce revealed that his firm was developing an IBM 370-compatible microprocessor, actually to be an improvement on it, with deliveries expected in 1980. Obviously, the market prospects have improved a lot in two years.

Some observers conclude from all this that in the future there may be more money to be made, and more securely made, by teaching people how to use the new microprocessor technology than from manufacturing or distributing it. We can see a proliferation of classes and seminars around the world on this subject, and many schools are planning programs of microcomputer-oriented instruction. Much more of this is urgently needed if people are to be prepared for the many changes that will occur.

Small Wonders: Tomorrow's World of "Smart" Machines

Computer expert Jon Roland predicts that coming advances in electronics technology will cause enormous changes in every aspect of modern society. Here are a few of the possible changes he foresees:

Instant Information: Pocket-sized portable "dators," combining features of CB radio, giant computers, and the telephone system, may become the universal communications network of the 1990s.

Home Banking: Personal computers may conduct all kinds of financial business directly between individuals using built-in tamper-proof mechanisms to protect privacy and prevent fraud.

Self-Guided Planes and Cars: Guidance systems controlled by small computers may replace human pilots in aircraft. On the ground, similar systems will pilot vehicles safely to their destinations, coping effectively with traffic signals, road signs, and other vehicles.

Classroom Computers: Students of the 1980s may build and program their own personal computer systems as a standard part of the school curriculum.

Jon D. RoIand is an independent consultant and microsystems analyst based in San Antonio, Texas. He has also worked as a policy researcher in Washington, D.C., and was a candidate for U.S. Representative from the 23rd Congressional District of Texas in the 1974 Democratic Primary. His address is 1015 Navarro, San Antonio, Texas 78205 USA.