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space3008: What’s Next in Science and Technology (continued)

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The final part of Friday’s presentation was given by Eric Skogen, who focused on nascent technologies, and our expectations of the medium. He began with a quote from computer scientist Alan Kay: “Technology is anything that was invented after you were born."

Grid computing, recently known as cloud computing, bypasses a main problem of current network structuring. Applications running on shared servers and dedicated servers both share an OS, and when something bad happens, admin has a problem: the blue screen of death. Virtualization – virtual OS “instances” – work around this problem. By splitting up servers into components (and having fewer of them), it’s easier to avoid nagging reboots. Using this methodology, hundreds of computers run virtualization and offer users a slice of the grid. It’s possible that 300 virtual instances may run across only 30 actual computers.

Most, if not all, of these advances are made possible by hardware becoming cheaper. This tendency has been predicted by Moore’s Law, which holds that computational power doubles every two years. There’s another phenomenon worth talking about: small imprint computers. These can provide benefits to areas traditionally bereft of personal computing such as developing countries. The One Laptop Per Child program offers a computer that uses Wi-Fi mesh networks to share its networking power with other laptops, making it ideal for communities of similar users. Donations to the cause will stretch even further in the future: the laptops cost $100 to build now, with the price dropping to $50 by 2010.

With more conscientious design choices, we can also alleviate the miseries of user interaction. Eric provided the following example: imagine you have a site with 100,000 users, and you want to add a new feature. Design it as a 1 page form, and it’ll take users only 30 seconds to fill out. However, it’ll take 8 hours of design time and 2 weeks of development, costing you $15,400 to produce. But throw good design out the window, set it as a 5-page form, and it’ll take users a full 4 minutes to complete. That’s unfortunate for them, but you’ll save costs by foregoing design time, and shaving 1 week off of development, costing you only $7,000, or less than half of the 1 page version. However, in this scenario each user will sacrifice an extra three-and-a-half minutes of their time. Spread across 100K users, that’s 350,000 minutes of extra time used. If you rate users’ time as much as you do your own – the fees that clients pay you – the design shortcut that saved you thousands will end up costing your users a cool million.

Eric concluded his presentation with the example of touch screens. They were once out of reach to consumers; now, thanks to the iPhone, their use is on the path to ubiquity. Soon, Microsoft Surface will introduce tabletop touch functionality to workspaces. As technology becomes ever more accessible, it will hopefully put itself – and human endeavor – to better use.