Thursday, January 1, 2015

Innovators: Free Your Mind & The Rest Will Follow

Review by Bill Doughty

2015! Time to take a deep breath and consider the most important inventions affecting our lives: the computer and the Internet. Time to think of their creators: "pioneers, hackers, inventors, entrepreneurs," as Walter Isaacson calls them in his recent book "The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution."

Milestones revealed from a 2015 perspective (not meant to be all-inclusive):

  • 80 years ago, 1935 – Tommy Flowers pioneers use of vacuum tubes as on-off switches in circuits; two years later Alan Turing publishes "On Computable Numbers," and Howard Aiken proposes construction of a large digital computer. (Aiken, born in Hoboken, New Jersey, would later become a commander in the Naval Reserve.)
  • 70 years ago, 1945 – Six women programmers of ENIAC are sent to Aberdeen for training.The previous year Lt. Grace Hopper graduates first in her class from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School of Smith College in Massachusetts; in 1952 she develops the first computer compiler. The first microchip would be developed by the end of the 50s.
  • 50 years ago, 1965 – Ted Nelson publishes the first article about "hypertext" and Moore's Law predicts microchips will double in power every year or so.
  • 40 years ago, 1975 – Paul Allen and Bill Gates write BASIC for Altair and form Microsoft, while Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak launch the Apple I.
    Steve Jobs unveils the Mac.
  • 35 years ago, 1980 – IBM commissions Microsoft to develop an operating system for the PC; four years later in 1984 Apple introduces the Macintosh.
  • Over the past 20 years – Larry Page and Sergey Brin launch Google (1998), Ev Williams launches Blogger (1999), Jimmy Wales with Larry Sanger launches Wikipedia (2001), and the world welcomes Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. 

Isaacson presents the history of digital innovation and, critically, analyzes how success was achieved through teamwork of creative collaborators. "The tale of their teamwork is important because we don't often focus on how central that skill is to innovation."

"The Innovators" starts with a timeline of milestones, includes short biographies of key characters and walks us through the development of the computer, programming, the microchip, video games, the Internet, the personal computer, software, and online ultimate connectivity.

Questions he attempts to answer:
"What ingredients produced their creative leaps? What skills proved most useful? How did they lead and collaborate? Why did some succeed and others fail? ... I also explore the social and cultural forces that provide the atmosphere for innovation. For the birth of the digital age, this included a research ecosystem that was nurtured by government spending and managed by a  military-industrial-academic collaboration. Intersecting with that was a loose alliance of community organizers, communal-minded hippies, do-it-yourself hobbyists, and homebrew hackers, most of whom were suspicious of centralized authority."
Lady Ada conceived of the computer.
Just over 170 years ago Ada, Countess of Lovelace (poet Lord Byron's daughter), collaborated with mathematician and philosopher Charles Babbage and published "Notes" to describe the concept for an Analytic Engine – a machine matched with the ability to process numbers and any information that could be expressed in symbols to produce calculations and solve problems. "In other words, she envisioned the modern computer." She is admired today as an early champion of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Women continued to contribute to the development of the digital age, particularly in the area of programming and language – from ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania to Mach I at Harvard near the end of World War II, where Grace Hopper came into her own. Hopper developed the world's first working compiler, Isaacson notes, which translated mathematical code into machine language accessible to human users.

President Reagan meets then Capt. Grace Hopper in 1983.
She was the ultimate free-thinking team player.
"Like a salty crew member, Hopper valued an all-hands-on-deck style of collaboration, and she helped develop the open-source method of innovation by sending out her initial versions of the compiler to her friends and acquaintances in the programming world and asking them to make improvements. She used the same open development process when she served as the technical lead in coordinating the creation of COBOL, the first cross-platform standardized business language for computers. Her instinct that programming should be machine-independent was a reflection of her preference for collegiality; even machines, she felt, should work well together. It also showed her early understanding of a defining fact of the computer age: that hardware would become commoditized and that programming would be where the true value resided. Until Bill Gates came along, it was an insight that eluded most of the men."
Hopper eventually became a commodore (rear admiral). Her namesake, USS Hopper (DDG 70), is homeported at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. 

Among Isaacson's other conclusions:

  • The importance of not just peer collaboration but also intergenerational collaboration.
  • Aristotle was right that humans are social animals.
  • Collaboration leads to a forged partnership or symbiosis between people and machines.
  • The Digital Revolution wrested control of information from central authority only and put it in the hands of individuals at the speed of light. (Free your mind and the rest will follow.)  It's no wonder totalitarian states and ideologies want to control the Web.
  • It's important to pair visionaries who come up with the strategic ideas with operating managers who can execute them tactically.
  • Foresight: "The best innovators were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them."
  • Success came about through a balance in government, market, and peer sharing, where no leg of the stool is  too long.
  • "Finally, I was struck by how the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences." Think Leonardo da Vinci and Vitruvian Man, pictured below.

Isaacson, who authored "Steve Jobs," "Einstein: His LIfe and Universe," "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," and "Kissinger: A Biography," as well as other works, employs his usual detailed research, carefully selected anecdotes and remarkable insights to create this book.

Most of the profiles feature the men who achieved key milestones in the digital age. But it's noteworthy that "The Innovators" begins and ends with a focus on women, including those who conceived the very idea of the computer.

His final chapter, "Ada Forever," discusses whether machines can ever fully replicate human intelligence. In other words, as Kurzweil and others ask, will we reach the singularity predicted in 2030? Or whether, instead of replacing humans, machines will become their constant companions. For much of the world, perhaps that's already happening.

(I'm posting this during the Rose Bowl ... Check out the link between Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and "Unbroken's" Louis Zamperini in a recent Navy Reads post.)

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