The future of technology: why Turkish delight beats the nanobots

I’ve been invited to speak on a panel of the future of IT this evening. In a moment of ego-driven weakness, and because I’ll get the chance to meet Rick Rashid, Head of Microsoft Research worldwide, I accepted. It’s not a topic I feel qualified to pontificate on, so I’ve spent the past few days booking up. Hopefully I won’t make a total tit of myself.

I feel like the British ambassador in a far-away country. The story goes that a journalist called him up one December and asked him what he’d like for Christmas. A memo had gone round the week before, reminding all staff about the dangers of bribery. The guidelines, it emphasised, were to not accept anything worth more than $50, or that couldn’t be consumed in a single sitting. With the rules in mind, he told the journalist that he wouldn’t mind a small box of Turkish Delight. Not too large, mind.

The next week, he opened the newspaper. It described what the ambassadors of different countries were hoping for at Christmas. The French ambassador hoped for world peace. The US ambassador wanted a cure for cancer. The German ambassador wanted an end to poverty. And the British ambassador wanted a small box of Turkish delight.

Over the past few days I’ve read about printed polymer displays. I’ve looked into the implications of unlimited storage, and cheap, multi-touch screens. I’ve Googled Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. I’ve skimmed books by Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt. I’ve watched a 3-D teleconference that Cisco held last year. Will in-car internet be the next big thing? How will programming languages change to cope with massively distributed systems? Are data-flow languages the way we’re heading? What about quantum cryptography? Are the social trends more important than the technology? Are we just obsessed by techno-fetishism?

And then, this morning, I try to join the IEEE. I enter my chosen user name, and click next. I get the following screen:

Apparently the IEEE – the self-named "world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology" – cannot figure out how to convert a lowercase string to an uppercase one, and they think that error SBL-EXL-00151 is a sensible way to tell me their problem.

Then I log on to my internet banking system. I want to see the transactions in the last month. Of course, there’s no option to view the last month, so I enter dates from 3/5/08 to 3/6/08 (I’m in the UK). I get the following error:

Error(s) occurred

The ‘from’ date entered is invalid. (B1010-BR)

Not only can HSBC not convert my input of 3/5/08 to their expected input 03/05/2008, but they can’t even figure out that this is one ‘error’ and not multiple ‘errors’. And they insult me by claiming it’s my ‘error’ when it’s clearly their sloppy programming. But, hey, that B1010-BR number is really useful.

There’s an element of grumpiness in my griping, but there is a serious point here too. Innovation isn’t always – or evenly mainly – about the whizz-bang of nanobots and artificial intelligence. To take an idea from the lab and turn it into a usable product that people will buy can take years – if not decades – of hard, sustained effort. The multi-touch displays we’re drooling over now were first demonstrated twenty years ago. The mouse is 40 years old. Electronic paper was demonstrated at Xeroc PARC in the 1970s. The people who grind away at the job of turning ideas into products are not the same people who have the startling insights, or who tell us fantastic stories about the future of machine vision or the semantic web. They’re the journeyman software developers who still cannot figure out how to remove the spaces and dashes in credit card numbers.

So here’s my Turkish delight; what I’d like the future of IT to be. I’d like us to improve the craft of software development. To stop producing unusable, patronizing software, and to start writing well-tested, well-designed software that makes people smile.

But I reckon that’s a lot less likely to come true than machine vision, nanobots and free, wireless Internet access.