Enormous possibilities still lie ahead -- in fact, the real information revolution is yet to come.

Predicting is difficult -- especially the future. (In information technology, under-estimation is in fact common, from Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of IBM, more than fifty years ago: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers;" to Kenneth J. Olson, Chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation, in the late 1970s: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.")

With this caveat, there seems to be a strong bipartisan consensus at the state level, in Congress, in the Administration, in the public, and in our technical community, that the real information revolution -- the convergence of computing, information, and communication -- is just beginning to burst on the scene. This belief rests on two clear trends.

In the first place, as mentioned earlier, the capabilities of information technology continue to double every 18 to 24 months. The results are twofold: continuous improvements in the existing ways we use technology, and periodic breakthroughs that open up entirely new possibilities, where capabilities previously available only in the most advanced scientific and engineering laboratories become available to all. For example, in the early 1980s the cost/performance ratio of integrated circuits dropped to the point where desktop personal computers suddenly became conceivable. The way we think of and use computers has been totally transformed by that breakthrough.

Let us digress for a moment and illustrate this phenomenon of exponential growth using an example from Nicholas Negroponte's recent book, Being Digital. It's the familiar story of the person who agrees to work for a month starting at only a penny a day, so long as her salary doubles every day. Notice two things. First, if the month has 31 working days (we'd all work weekends for this rate of pay!), the total salary collected is more than $20 million. Second, half the salary is collected on the last day! Similarly for information technology, assuming that we invest to sustain past rates of progress: the absolute performance is staggering, and tomorrow's payoff will be even bigger than today's. It is critical that the United States reap these benefits.

In the second place, the integration of computers with communications and other information technologies to create whole new forms of distributed information systems and services has just begun. The nation's emerging information infrastructure will therefore amplify the already phenomenal increase in performance. That is, we not only will have more powerful personal computers, but these computers will be connected to a world-wide network of services and resources.

The real revolution is this digital convergence -- the computer as an active, even intelligent information access device. This revolution, as noted earlier, will extend to rural America the benefits that urban dwellers take for granted in areas such as health care, libraries, government information, cultural resources, and entertainment. It will enhance the way scientists and engineers perform the research that is so important to our nation as a whole. It will revolutionize manufacturing and commerce, and transform education.

America can, and America must, lead this revolution.

Back to Computing Research: Driving Information Technology and the Information Industry Forward (http://cra.org/research.impact)
Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 by Edward D. Lazowska and the Computing Research Association. Portions adapted with permission from "Evolving the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative to Support the Nation's Information Infrastructure," copyright 1995 by the National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington DC.