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Lest We Get Egotistical

It is natural to assume that we, as a technological culture, have advanced so far beyond our predecessors.  We have the benefits of silicon based computation, advanced chemical batteries for providing power, and so on and so forth.

I’d like to send you back a few centuries when the technologists had none of those things.  Instead, they had highly refined gears and gear making processes, springs for power, and the limits of their imaginations.

From Switzerland, there is a programmable automaton capable of writing with a quill.

From Japan, there is a programmable automaton capable of writing with a brush.

From France, there is a programmable automaton capable of playing the hammered dulcimer.

From Belgium, the silver swan.

Consider that the life span of typical software is a few years at best.  These devices are still working at 200 years or more.

Published Wednesday, January 21, 2009 10:53 AM by Steve Hawley


Wednesday, January 21, 2009 12:52 PM by EricHarmon

# re: Lest We Get Egotistical

These are nice, but I have to point out the inconsistency between "These devices are still working at 200 years or more" and "the life span of typical software is a few years at best".

I'm sure the very first program I ever wrote (probably a two-line BASIC program that just displayed my name) still works just fine.  With software it's a question of usefulness, not whether the code still works.

The Swiss automaton still works, but isn't very useful.  Consider a piece of software that could only accept and print 40 characters.  After a time, users would demand 80 characters, then 1000 characters, then entire books.  Like the Swiss automaton, the original 40-character software may very well be working 200 years later, but wouldn't be useful any longer.

-Eric Harmon

Wednesday, January 21, 2009 3:10 PM by Steve Hawley

# re: Lest We Get Egotistical

Interesting point, although one could argue that the automata are exactly as useful as they were when constructed.  They were meant to be art: a kinetic source of entertainment, amusement, and/or awe and as such they still are.

With software, it is a question of both utility and if the code still runs.  There was a case about 10 years ago of some software running  a toll booth system.  The software still ran on its hardware, but the hardware and the components to repair the hardware and the factories to make the components were gone, so while the software had its utility, it could no longer run.  With emulators, the lifespan may be longer.

My brother was telling me about the pipe organ in trinity church that was being replaced with a synthesizer run by several Linux boxes - which is a terrific example: traditional pipe organs and even electromechanical ones can be kept running for a very long time, again hundreds of years with straightforward, replicable technologies.  Not so, the Linux boxes.  The trade-off is that a traditional pipe organ is probably only 75% functional at any one time.  It's a giant pinball machine.  If the Linux box fails, it is replaceable but not likely repairable but at the point of failure, will there still be MIDI?  USB?  Who's to say?  And if they resurrect the OS and the software will it sound the same?

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