Circa: 2013–A Technologist’s View Of Past


I am Dr Sridhar Mitta,
67, retired but re-engaged–thanks to the continuing demand for mind farming in the
borderless world of the Twenty-first century.

The surge, according to techno-economists and people who predict the future of
work, will continue for at least another 15 years. I am happy as it is enabling me not
only to make both ends meet, but also keeping me fruitfully engaged. The downside of
technology over borders has of course been, the loss of personal touch among people. We,
in our times, had a lot more of ‘physical’ (P2 as the current generation seems to label)
interactions. That is all gone now. There seems to be more comfort in handling most of
life’s transactions over P1 links that deliver Real Feel Net Physical experiences. I have
little to complain, sitting here today, already 13 years into the Twenty-first century.

When I was a child, the way to communicate
with some one was to write a letter and post it. Major events and happenings of life like
some birth or death in the family, and dad-send-me-cash etc. were handled through things
called telegram. Most of you probably have not heard of it or, those who have had an early
life experience with a concept like that, have selectively disengaged from that memory.
When I was a young boy, the telephone appeared in a few households and some businesses. It
was not all that common. It took a long time for it to penetrate every pocket. It actually
took almost a lifetime!

When I traveled all the way to the US to
get my Doctoral degree in 1971, (do not laugh, but that is the way things were before the
Internet destroyed formal education of that kind), I remember sending home a ‘cable’ to
inform about my safe arrival. I never got a chance to speak to my mother.

I returned to India in 1972. The telephone
by now had become more common but quaintly, it was a stationary frog like apparatus with
long cables protruding from its back, connected to an antiquated, ‘physical’ jack on the
wall. People were using the instrument with reverence and in turn, it even gifted them
with social distinction. If you were to make an STD call, you had to call an operator
first, tell her the number you wanted. She then made you wait for a while before
connecting you to your desired station. Queues were the order of the day and delays were
frequent. So, the service provider, which used to be a government monopoly, decided to
make money out of scarcity. You could pay extra to jump the queue. Sounds mentally
depraved-if one looks from today’s era of technology abundance.

In 1957, the satellite-the first forerunner
to today’s Sky Stations-was launched. It virtually took 50 years for its true potential to
be realized. The most dramatic impact was on the antiquated telephone system. It happened
in three steps. First, the queue went. You no longer had to wait to get your call through.
In the next step, they were no longer fixed to a place-someone even coined the term
‘cellular’ telephones. But, I remember, they were expensive in the beginning. The first
two steps were evolutionary. In the third step, in 2005, a revolution took place.

Breakthrough work done by a UCLA student in
Cape Town and a retired Professor of the Indian Institute of Information Technology at
Hyderabad changed the monopoly pricing of telephone companies who were charging atrocious
tariffs for cellular phone usage. The work done by this duo-who never met-actually made
the concept of ‘one-life, one-phone’ affordable. Actually, I am surprised why nobody took
the cue when Citibank came out with the revolutionary idea of universal banking. In my
younger days, no one could transact in a bank where you did not have a physical account.
You had to open an account in not just a bank, but a physical and a specific branch of
that bank. You could certainly have something called an ATM card-but that just enables you
to draw cash. Each time you moved, you had to start a whole new relationship with another
bank. Meet a new manager, get new set of introductions, and finally open a new account.

Then there were international monetary
restrictions that did not make things any easier. Citibank foresaw the true meaning of
borderless banking from both a technology and an economic perspective and pioneered the
concept of ‘one-person’, ‘one-account’, ‘go-anywhere’ banking. Why couldn’t the phone
companies do it earlier?

Anyway, let us now come back to the
discussion on ‘one- life, one-phone’. The phone-for-life of early times was not designed
to handle both voice and image. This happened only later, thanks largely to the work done
in the labs of the Mind Map Corp. It was born out of the collaboration of three companies
that do not exist any more. One was a company named Intel. It had worked on the concept of
video-phony toward the end of the last century.

The company had made a lot of money by
creating some thing called a microprocessor chip. Intel had suggested that long-distance,
high-fidelity real images could be hauled across the world using desk-based computing
devices called PCs and the Internet. It was Mind Map that made the transition from the
Intel’s PC Vision to the Wall Mounted DigiScreen (WMDS) that, today, do everything from
two-way broadcast to event reception.

But the real breakthrough in technology
during my own lifetime has been the coming together of telephony, computers, and what
started as an obscure concept called Virtual Reality. True understanding of the impact of
that convergence does not become real without a very personal experience. I want to share
one with you before we close this module of the telezine.

Two years back, I had a small swelling on
my left hand. It did not bother me much till it actually became a lump and an old
colleague asked me to take it seriously. So, I took an appointment with a surgeon in John
Hopkins to see me at home in Bangalore via the teleport of my WMDS. Trust me, in my
younger days, such things were unheard of. Consultation with a local doctor in Bangalore
meant a visit to the hospital even if it was a purely diagnostic issue. The surgeon from
John Hopkins had good news and bad news. The good news was that it wasn’t looking like
something I needed to get an immediate hospitalization for. The bad news was that it
certainly needed further investigation. He wanted to touch and feel the lump rather than
just look at it via the teleport. Now, did that mean a visit to John Hopkins? No, he said.
All I had to do was to visit the Mallya Hospital in Bangalore and they had the additional
software not just to teleport a 3D rendering of the lump, but also the algorithm to convey
the sensation of touch and feel simultaneously at both ends through a mathematical model.
When I expressed joy and astonishment, the surgeon laughed and said that the algorithm
that made such things possible actually came from someone called Dr Subroto Bagchi from
the Indian Institute of Science right here in Bangalore! Next week, I visited the Mallya
Hospital. The whole procedure took less than 30 minutes. The technician covered the area
for investigation with an apparatus that was fitted with micro probes and fly eyes. In a
moment, the surgeon in John Hopkins was on the WMDS. I watched him actually move his hands
over my lump that was shown on his screen. His hands were covered by normal gloves-but the
operator told me that they only looked normal. Actually, they were fitted with sensors
that conveyed feelings in a two- way manner. I understood the implication as I started
experiencing the weird feeling of someone touching the lump. The sensation moved to other
spots as the surgeon’s fingers moved on his screen.

The equipment that make such processes
happen with nonchalance in places like Mallya Hospital, are still very expensive today. I
am sure that these will soon invade every other sphere of our lives and that will drive
prices down. Now, in the story that I just shared with you, what is the fundamental
context in which technological convergence has reshaped the state of things ? Well, the
context clearly is the ‘concurrency of time and space’. For the best part of the Twentieth
century, people worked toward and achieved time concurrency. The telephone helped.

When telephones and computers came
together, time concurrency took on increasingly varied manifestations. We also saw the
early manifestations of space concurrency. After my wife video-chatted with my daughter in
the US for the first time in 2004, I am told the humankind finally buried the ancient art
of letter writing. However, flying a bunch of speaking images was hardly my concept of
space concurrency. My conviction in the possibility of a tidal wave of applications that
celebrate the time-space concurrency was total after the small but meaningful encounter at
the Mallya Hospital.

What are the social implications ? They are
vast and probably more profound than we can comprehend today in 2013! Will we see misuse
of technology? We surely will-as much as we have seen misuse of any technology human
beings have ever created. At 67, I feel, somewhere people will find a balance. Even when
we had such harmless things as the telephone, some people put it to strange but
imaginative use. Once upon a time, there has even been an instance of a US President who
lost his job because he had put the innocuous instrument to socially controversial use.
Such things will certainly not overshadow the enormous positive impact that is waiting to
be harvested as technology finds context in the years ahead.

Note: To experience the feelings
of this article, get connected to
Try after June 1, 2013!

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