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Podcast Part 1: Pournelle On Computers And Science Fiction

Jerry Pournelle's work on long-ago defense projects gave him insight into the future of computers. In this first of a four-part podcast series, the popular <em>BYTE</em> columnist talks about how he was able to predict the iPhone.

Daniel Dern

April 7, 2012

5 Min Read

From the Boskone 49 science fiction convention BYTE's Daniel Dern interviewed famed science fiction author and BYTE veteran Jerry Pournelle on the history of computers in science fiction.

Jerry's bio for his BYTE column, "Computing at Chaos Manor," once read:

Jerry Pournelle holds a doctorate in psychology and is a science-fiction writer who also earns a comfortable living writing about computers present and future.

Science fiction authors don't predict the future--they create the specifications for people of the future to implement. Jerry is well-qualified to imagine the future of computers. In this first of a four-part series of podcasts, we ask him what sci-fi writers got right--and wrong--about computers today.

DANIEL: Welcome to an interview with Jerry Pournelle, NESFA's Science Guest of Honor. I'm Daniel Dern, a local technology writer. I was editor of BYTE.com, the Web-only presence of BYTE from 1998 to 2001, where Jerry was our lead columnist, and "keeping Jerry happy" was the unwritten fifth bullet point of my job. Which would have been a lot easier, Jerry, if you had complained directly to me instead of my hearing it third-hand at times...

Be that as it may, that's ancient history. Jerry is joining us remotely from his home because he is under the weather, and he has graciously decided to share his anecdotes and his thoughts but not his germs with us. So... Jerry, audience. Audience, Jerry.

JERRY: Hi, everybody. I can see Mr. Dern, but I can't see you, so I don't know how many of you there are. As you can tell, I'm not 100%, but my head is sort of working.

DANIEL: We had hoped that this be archived for possible re-use on BYTE, but that might not happen, so Jerry and I may do that separately. But we're here now, we have a roomful of excited, well-groomed fans [audience laughter]... they're next door. Today's topic, to the extent we can we can control you, Jerry, is one, what computers and science fiction--what did science fiction, either the things that you, on your own or with Larry Niven, or in general, get right or wrong in what has been written? And from there, what do science fiction writers think about where computers are going, how they will play a role in fiction? And last but not least, what are some of the things that you are playing with, trying, reviewing or yelling at over in your Chaos Manor testing lab?

So--science fiction, looking back at computers, what did we--you--get right or get wrong?

JERRY: It depends on when. In the early days of science fiction, they got it pretty well all wrong. The best-known computers in science fiction stories in the early days, before minicomputers were invented, were maybe Asimov's planet-sized computer, the whole dang planet was one great big computer which presumably was full of vacuum tubes [laughter]. You would think that Isaac of all people would have understood that the speed of light makes it rather difficult to make computers bigger and bigger, that they really needed to get physically smaller and smaller.

So they had it all wrong for a very long time.

DANIEL: But to be fair, science fiction isn't really expected to predict what's coming, it's to play with what we know.

JERRY: Yeah.

DANIEL: And if I recall correctly, in some of your books, you and Larry [Niven] had hand-held computing and network devices.

JERRY: I think that the first description of the pocket computer, of which I have an example in the sense, which is to say, an iPhone, I think the first prediction of a pocket computer that I know of... probably others did it too... in The Mote In God's Eye, Larry [Niven] and I had essentially everybody in the story having a pocket computer and there were a lot of them. They were their memory, their data assistant, their calendars, it was their communication device. And everybody used them.

And that story was published in 1973, I guess--the early 70's.

The reason I was able to get that is because, in 1964, I was in the Air Force project, a very top-secret project, called Project 75. The purpose of Project 75 was to assess the ballistic missile situation: what did we know about ballistic missiles, and what did we need to do to make them more effective.

And the result of the study was that we needed on-board guidance, a means of letting the missile know where it was in relation to where it was supposed to be. And so the recommendation of the study was that the Air Force encourage large investments in large-scale integrated circuits.

And that pretty well produced the computer revolution, although I'm not saying I had a notion that that's what it would do at the time we did that. But as soon as it started happening and small computers began coming out, it became obvious that it would be a real revolution. And that's where I got the notion of the pocket computers, which were small rather than big.

And I think I may have been the first science fiction writer to spend a lot of time on the subject that computers were going to get smaller rather than bigger.

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Daniel Dern


Daniel P. Dern is an independent technology and business writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected]; his website, www.dern.com; or his technology blog, TryingTechnology.com

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