A society transformed by microchips

Of all the technologies created by man, none has grown faster or is destined to have greater effect on society than the computer. I was privileged to be present at the dawn of the computer age. My first perception was of the great economic benefits that would flow from vastly improving the productivity of industy and helping solve ever larger scientific and engineering problems.

In later years, as I gained experience with the power and versatility of the computer, my perception widened. I saw its great potential for addressing social problems. Today, I believe the computer can ultimately reach everyone in the world and provide them with better access to information: knowledge that will enrich their pesonal lives and give them more control over their destinies. At some time in the future, the humanm benefits of the computer will dwarf the economic.

The scenario I foresee is no idle dream. The stage is already set, the future foreshadowed by current accomplishments in computer technology. Before I review some of these accomplishments, however, it is essential to sketch briefly the computer technology I am talking about. This is PLATO, a computer-based educational system. PLATO is nearly limitless in its versatility and its ability to provide more accessible, less costly, yet uniformly high-quality education and training.

A broad range of lessons and course material is stored in a central computer. This is accessible through TV-like terminals operated by the student at his or her own pace via a typewriter-like keyboard and a touch-sensitive screen. The instructional materials are displayed in the form of numbers, text, drawings, and animated graphics.

Because its many features facilitate rapid and personalized learning. PLATO relates to a student's needs in a way not possible by books or classroom alone.It has infinite patience and a virtually inexhaustible memory. It gives the student immediate feedback, encouragement, and support. It diagnoses student needs, teaches, drills, tests, and grades in a self-paced, easy-to-use manner. When the student touches the screen or the keyboard, the PLATO terminal responds immediately. There is a continuous interaction -- a give-and- take -- on a one-to-one basis.

Because of its ability to update, flash back, review, explain, and animate, virtually any activity can be simulated on the PLATO terminal. Also, the system can accommodate a number of people at the same time -- even if they have varied levels of knowledge or are studying different subject matter.

For 19 years my company, Control Data, has been engaged in coopeative efforts with many other organizations and individuals to develop computer-based education, and with each passing year the cost decreases. At the same time, the amount of high-quality lesson material grows substantially as an increasing number of leading educators participate. Despite the growing advantages, however, acceptance of the computer in the educational world has been relatively slow. On the other hand, history tells us that it took 200 years after the book was introduced before teachers began using it. Considered in that light, the rapidly expanding use of computer-based education is remarkable.

One of the first areas where the PLATO computer-based education system has gained acceptance is educating and training the underprivileged. Remedial action for those who lack basic skills is very costly, highly time-consuming, and frustrating for teachers. The individual testing, prescribing, feedback, recordkeeping, and analyzing -- all done manually -- require too much time and effort to be done effectively. The computer, however, has infinite patience: It doesn't neglect any of these chores for something more interesting.

The basic skills curricula of PLATO include mathematics, reading, and English. The curricula are being delivered in the toughest learning environments: prisons, schools in poverty areas, and adult learning centers. Independent educational consultants have evaluated the basic skills courseware and the results have been astounding. Among school students of average motivation and ability, it takes about 150 hours of traditional instruction to progress one full grade level in each of the three subjects -- and that excludes homework. PLATO has been able to accomplish the same results in just 20 hours, includingm homework. And those results were with students who, in most cases, had not succeeded in average classroom conditions. Just as important, once the students have acquired basic skills and gained confidence in their ability to learn, they have also progressed rapidly in vocational training and other, more advanced courses.

Like the underprivileged, the handicapped can look forward to much better, more accessible, and less costly education by way of computer technology. Few of us are fully aware of the large number of people in our society who have handicaps. Even fewer understand the variety and magnitude of their problems, especially the frustration, suffering, and despair caused by their inability to lead productive lives. ABout one-sixth of the people in the United States are handicapped in one way or another and more than 15 million adults are limited in their ability to work.

Government support is available to many of these people. But for the most part they are simply forgotten. The unused human resources they represent are an economic and social waste which contributes to the devastating inflation eroding the standard of living in our country. Even worse, these people face a lifetime of suffering and indignity, of being a burden on society, denied the basic human right of a meaningful job and self-respect.

Today, technology is at hand which promises substantial improvement in this disheartening picture. An extensive array of machines and instruments can provide varying degrees of physical capabilities for disabled persons. Virtually any of them can be adapted to PLATO, making the highest- quality instruction possible for much less cost -- and opening for many an avenue to useful employment.

Three examples will help demonstrate the great potential of computer-based education for the disabled:

First, the PLATO keyboard has been modified so paraplegics can operate it with a mouth-stick.

Second, for people who cannot hear, a waist belt is being developed that translates sounds into skin sensations. An audio device sounds a word or sentence. An electronic device translates the sound into rippling sensations on the stomach. And the associated word or sentence is flashed on the computer screen.

The third and most important example is a program called HOMEWORK. This provides training and employment alternatives to the severely disabled. Sadly, the many capabilities these people possess have never been tapped. But a service is now available to develop job opportunities for them by installing a PLATO terminal in their homes. The first tasks selected were the design and evaluation of educational courses. Computer programming and other jobs are gradually being added.

Now is HOMEWORK restricted to the disabled. It also provides learning and employment alternatives for the able-bodied but homebound, including those in remote rural areas. This has tremendous implications for married women living on farms and in isolated communities who have been deprived of the opportunity to pursue a career while they've been raising a family.

Computer-based education is permeating all areas of education, but the only other one I'll review here is the teaching of wellness. Health is becoming a social movement of major proportions, largely because of the rapidly rising cost of health care. The concept of wellness has also gathered strength as it has become apparent that adverse life styles and negative health habits are responsible for much of the unnecessary sickness and disability many Americans experience.

At the same time, people are beginning to recognize the limits of medical care. Its providers have not managed to give consumers increased access to health information, largely because of the high cost involved and an absence of ways to make it conveniently available and easy to use. Computer-based education eliminates these obstacles, and many computer-based courses on self-health will become available within the next five years.

Another use of the computer -- and closely allied with education -- is a response to the fact that development of solutions to society's problems are retarded when proven technology is not replicated. For example, the successful problem-solving technologies developed by one city, neighborhood, farm, or business might never be applied in another setting.

To address that problem, large data bases of technology are being assembled and made available in such areas as human services, city governmental practices, housing retrofit and renovation, energy, agriculture, and food processing.

The data bases are easily accessible and will be particularly helpful to the individuals, small enterprises, and neighborhoods that lack the resources of large organizations needed to locate existing technology or develop new ways of doing things.

How data bases of technology and education help small enterprise is best illustrated by the coming revolution in the field of agriculture, where the trend over the past 50 years to larger and larger farms will be reversed.

It is now evident that with proper selection and application of existing and emerging technologies, and with adequate ongoing R&D, small family farms and food processing operations can reduce the cost of food, make a significant contribution to food production, do it in more environmentally protective ways, and provide a decent living for the operators. Results cannot be obtained overnight, but there ism enough existing applicable knowledge to make meaningful progress in a few years and, with adequate ongoing research and development, to achieve significant results in 10 to 15 years.

Computer technology is the centerpiece of the strategy. Data banks of agricultural technology are being assembled and computer-based education courseware is being written through cooperative efforts with many unversities and other organizations. Priority is being given to technology that is consistent with high production per acre, low capital investment, and decreased consumption of fossil fuels. Computer- optimized selections of crop, livestock, equipment, and other technologies can be made for each small farm, and a full range of computer-based education and training will enable farmers to apply the technologies efficiently.

The ultimate benefits of computer technology in education, health, and agriculture can hardly be overstated. Here in the United States, the widespread use of computer-based education would shut off the stream of inadequately educated young people pouring out of our schools. The health of millions of people could be improved through teaching wellness by a method that is affordable and easily accessed.Greatly expanded small-scale agriculture could provide meaningful careers to millions of young people, reduce the cost of food, and result in all of the other benefits mentioned earlier.

Looking beyond the US, we are immediately confronted by the vast illiteracy in the developing world, the major impediment to human progress today. Three-quarters of a billion adults cannot read or write, the number is growing, and the only possible way the enormous educational gap can ever be closed is through the use of computer-based education.The same is true for the massive health care and agricultural problems in developing nations: A highly practical way to make substantial progress in health care is by teaching the avoidance of illness through computer-based education -- and computer technology can also greatly increase the efficiency of the more than 1 bilion small farmers in the developing world.

Finally, it has been said that technology takes away the human touch, that learning from a computer is degrading, that it threatens people's freedom, invades their privacy, turns their work into a boring routine, and replaces their jobs. Computer technology can do all of these things; but, as with most every other major technology, there is a good side and a bad side: The balance depends in large part on the response of the people involved.

Clearly, the applications I've described should demonstrate that computer technology can be overwhelmingly positive -- and that holds true in many other areas as well. Most important, computer-based education can bring a human touch to learning that most of our schools are failing to impart. Those who doubt the accuracy of that observation should spend a few minutes watching the huge and beautifully visible satisfaction of a disadvantaged young person's initial experiences with a PLATO terminal. They quickly realize that for the first time in their lives, they are in control of enormous power -- a world of knowledge at their finger tips.

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