in Technology

Atoms to Bits

The story of the last decade and a half is how the smallest unit in our lives has changed from atoms to bits. Atoms as in molecules has given way to bits as in bytes. For somebody who has grown up reading in textbooks that atom is the smallest unit, seeing this massive change is something nobody could have imagined back then.

And “back then” is only 10-15 years ago, not decades or centuries as the term is normally used for. My first computer had a 4GB hard disk in the year 2000, now my mobile has double that space. That 4GB hard disk cost my father a whopping 6000 bucks, but my latest 1TB hard disk cost me only 4500 bucks!! The cost per GB has fallen from Rs 1500 per GB to Rs 4.5 per GB. This massive change reflects everything that has happen in the computing world in only a decade.

It is said that change is the only constant. But this time the speed of change is what is amazing. And for the first time, the smallest unit has changed from atoms to bits. Things have moved to the digital world from the real world only for the first time in history.

The 19th century saw inventions such as batteries, steam engine, photography, typewriter, telegraph, telephone and many more industrial revolution inventions. The 20th century saw inventions like the airplane, radio, television, etc… The two world wars involved research in advanced weapons like missiles, submarines, torpedoes, and nuclear weapons. It is important to note that the smallest unit of all these technologies was still the atom.

But the 2nd half of the 20th century introduced the semiconductor to the world. The pace was slow to begin with, and the price huge to build a computer. But the speed of research and inventions in semiconductors began to astonish everybody and is now known as Moore’s law, i.e., the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every 18 months.

Around the 1960s and 1970s, software made an appearance and it brought with it bits and bytes, new units of the computer world. Microsoft and Apple soon started their personal computing war which resulted in bringing computers and laptops to every home and every desk in the world. With the shift from hardware to software, the smallest unit changed from atom to a bit. All the research was now happening in software, and how streams of 0’s and 1’s can be arranged to make software to transform our lives.

I can distinctly remember how I used to carry floppy disks which used to carry 1.44 MB of data in one disk. We used to carry music, images, programs, and sometimes hacked data all in that space. And each floppy used to go bad in a few weeks time. Being quite obsessed with computers from the beginning, I used to carry my hard disk with me to transfer data rather than managing tons of floppy drives. Flash drives soon made an appearance with thumb / pen drives and they changed the data transfer scene totally. On the same technology came the iPod which changed how music was heard and carried by one and all.

The purpose of floppy disks, CD/DVDs and flash memory disks was only to transfer this new form of data from one computer to another. But Internet changed all that soon. As far as I remember, my first impression of internet was of some network which we connect to using a phone line and a modem, and through which we can send emails and search information using so-called search engines. That was the year 2000 and dial-up connections used to rule.

Bandwidth is the speed of data transfer between any two networks. The advancement and progress that has happened in transfer speeds over the last decade is unlike humans have ever seen before. Internet allowed for peer to peer file transfer in a way that is spurred a whole new industry of piracy. People no longer required to buy their favorite music or movies, they can just copy it from their friends (and strangers too), all sitting in their homes and at no extra cost.

The last decade is rightly called the digital decade. Things like iPods and iPhones changed the way we listened to music and talked to friends. Internet changed from dial-up connections to always on broadband connections and was accessible even on phones and other mobile devices. An all new mobile telecommunications industry grew like wildfire and handed little devices called mobile phones in the hand of almost every person on the planet. And that device has a phone, a music player, a camera built-in and the ability to access the internet.

This information revolution has only just started, and what is amazing is its pace. We have seen advancement in the last decade that has previously taken centuries to materialize. There are no signs of a slowdown in this revolution, and we can’t imagine what is possible or what is not possible in the years and decades to come. Looks like mankind of this generation is going to witness change as has never happened before. The time when we will die will be so different from the time we were born that nothing could be recognizable. The way we live, the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we do business, and the way we have fun will have changed so much that it will seem that we have lived 400-500 years…

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