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The next revolution in computers.

Once upon a time, computers were just overly large adding machines. Almost no one dreamed they would change the world -- except John Diebold, author of the prophetic book Automation. Now, Diebold takes a fresh look at the future impacts of computers and automation.

When I wrote Automation over 40 years ago, I did not write it as an exercise in futurism. Instead, I wanted to tell people, particularly managers, that something so significant was brewing that it would change everything, that technologies such as computers and automation would transform the way we do business. As we look back, that impact is easy to recognize, but at the time, it was very difficult.

In the early 1950s, when I was a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Business, I would walk some evenings across the footbridge to where Howard Aiken was building big computers like the Mark 11 at the brand-new computation laboratory I would go back to the business school and suggest to my teachers that they go and take a look at it. None of them did.

Only two of my professors acknowledged that computers were important. One was an accounting professor who knew Hollerith machines (punched-card readers) and understood that advancements in that area would change much of what we were doing. The other was Georges F. Doriot, to whom I dedicated Automation. He said, "Of course the professors aren't going to be interested in any of these things. They stay with the old. They are not interested in the new."

The Road to Automation

It is hard for those who weren't around then to realize, but people had no idea that computers were going to change the world. Instead, they argued arcane things like, "What happens when a truck of scrap metal goes down the street and erases the magnetic records?" There was a lot of missionary work needed in those early years. But, gradually, a few things began to happen, and suddenly there was a rush of developments such as the use of computers by commercial banks, airlines, transportation, and the telephone companies.

Written in the early 1950s, Automation focused on the technology that made things happen. But there was more to it than just technology. During the first big rush, people thought they would buy computers and that would solve everything. But people soon discovered they had to figure out how to accomplish their goals in new ways.

We have learned much in the last 40 years that we can apply to thinking about the twenty-first century. Here are a few of my thoughts:

* It is hard to change old patterns of perception. People see things from a particular frame of reference that they are used to. But much of what they must deal with, especially in information technology, represents radical change, and it is hard for people to step outside and look at it afresh.

* Just because something is technologically possible doesn't mean it will necessarily happen. Many forecasts assume that if something can happen technologically it will happen when it can be done economically. It won't.

* Preconditions are often needed. For example, there is considerable resistance on the part of some doctors to use computers. Once we have a generation of physicians coming out of medical school who have been brought up using computers, however, there will be a completely different approach to medical services.

* Things usually take much longer to happen than you expect them to. Once you have scoped out what is possible and figured out what you can do, you think that everyone else will start to do it. However, it often takes much longer for the obvious to happen.

* You cannot anticipate what people will do with a new technology. Until you provide it at the market price, the only certainty is that people will not use a new technology the way you would expect. Therefore, demonstrations, pilot projects, and competition are important. A good example is how the Xerox 914 photocopier was turned down by IBM. A study at the time showed that the trend was to use smaller machines, not larger ones like the copier. But when people found they could produce copies of high quality on plain paper, they totally changed what they had been doing--everything changed. IBM's market research totally missed the point that people would behave differently.

Always Expecting Change

As the developments of the last 40 years continue to unfold, some patterns are emerging. In my early work, I theorized that computers would, first, change how we do our jobs. Indeed, this pretty much dominated computer and automation applications in the 1950s and 1960s. Second, I believed computers would change the kind of work we do--as began to happen during the 1970s and 1980s. Third, I believed the technologies would change the world in which we work. This is the beginning of the next great development in computers and automation, which has already begun in the 1990s.

Technology is becoming embedded in all sorts of products and services. It has become a part of our lives. And for the first time, we are seriously altering the way we deliver public services by the use of technology. Public services are typically the most important things we have--education, safety, medical treatment and services, and transportation.

The delivery of public services has tended to be an area where we decorate an obsolete process with technology. This has especially happened with the renewal of the infrastructure. Renewal is too often thought of as touching up the paint on bridges or filling in potholes, refurbishing systems that were designed in the early twentieth century.

We have to realize that we have the ability to look at the public needs of the early twenty-first century and match these with the technologies at our command. We must determine how we can deliver these services in a different way.

Automating Health Care

Health care is an extraordinarily obsolete system. A professor of emergency medicine at a major university sent me a really heart-rending letter. He said that physicians have to start from the very beginning with every patient. There is no history, no time to prepare--they know nothing about the patient.

We have inferior medical service because the computer technology that could change it is not being used. The difficulties of just accessing patient records--apart from analyzing them properly--are unnecessary and hinder us from providing quality service.

We have the opportunity to do some wholesale rethinking of how we provide health care and turn it into not only medical service, but preventive maintenance that involves the patient in decision making. We can begin through pilot and demonstration projects in hospitals, by doctors, and especially by private sector participation. Physicians can show patients the consequences of their actions and what the alternatives are. Technologies such as multimedia and interactive computers can allow patients, in the privacy of their own homes, to ask questions about these alternatives.

Other countries are moving much more aggressively than the United States in medical informatics. The computerization and redesign of Sweden's health delivery system has reduced that nation's spending on health care from 12% of GNP to a little over 7%. More than one-third of the population of the Netherlands have their medical records computerized. While some hospitals in the United States keep computerized patient records, these records only cover the time the patient is in the hospital and do not include their entire medical history.

Anticipating the "Infostructure"

I don't like inventing words, but in trying to think of how to solve infrastructure and public-service problems, I recently found myself writing "infostructure" instead of "information-based infrastructure." Actually, it is a usable word. The same thing happened to me at Harvard when I was writing on "automation"--a handy, clipped form of "automatization."

Information technologies offer many opportunities for improving the delivery of public services. Infostructure obliterates geographical limitations: We can now communicate with an individual anywhere on the globe. By linking doctors' offices to the information in medical and k, patient databases, people would be referred to the right specialists, who could see and treat patients much faster. No more sitting for hours in waiting room after waiting room. Immediate access, leading to individualized delivery of service, is the key benefit of the computer revolution,

Transportation is another public service in which information technologies offer vast improvements. While start-up arrangements, pricing schemes, and overall timetables have yet to be resolved, intelligent vehicle/highway systems will allow drivers to pass through a toll gate without even stopping: their accounts are debited automatically

This transportation infostructure will also tell you where the nearest hotel is and if there is a room available. If your car breaks down, it will direct you to the nearest repair shop that stocks the parts you need. And if you have an accident or medical emergency, it can tell you where the nearest hospital is, how to get there, and other necessary information. Europe and Japan are already developing such systems. In Japan alone, there are over 250,000 vehicles equipped with position-location devices and electronic maps.

The next big wave of change will come, as I theorized in the 1950s, in everyday life. Computers and automation have already changed how we work and what we do--now they are changing the world in which we work. But for this to happen satisfactorily, we need fundamental rethinking. We have to resolve issues like privacy, standards, and liability. If a microchip fails and information is lost, we must decide where to delegate responsibility.

Solving many of these problems will undoubtedly require a public-private partnership. We should know a lot more about how to make these happen effectively. We must address the public issues, but we also need to involve the private sector in order to have the benefits of maximum innovation and the dynamism that can be injected into such projects.

The problems we now face are fundamentally conceptual, rather than technical. Questions about pricing structures and related regulations must still be answered. It is these conceptual problems that prevent society from accruing any benefits of the infostructure that the technologies are making possible, such as improved cost performance, more-easily shared resources, and more-highly utilized ones.

Society must make public services and the physical infrastructure more effective through an increased interaction between the public and private sectors, so that we can create a demand for the kinds of software and hardware for each specific area --intelligent highways, health care, etc.--that will build the infostructure.

Once this is done, major growth industries--such as real-time data collection, database storage of historical and current information, communications networking, and service-providing software for the users and support staff of the infostructure --will blossom in the years ahead.

John Diebold is the chairman of The JD Consulting Group and of The Diebold Institute for Public Policy Studies. He is best known for his book, Automation: The Advent of the Automatic Factory (1952, 1983), which correctly forecast the increased use of technology in business. His address is The JD Consulting Group, P.O. Box 515, Bedford Hills, New York 10507. Telephone 914/234-0488; fax 914/234-0490.
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Author:Diebold, John Theurer
Publication:The Futurist
Date:May 1, 1994
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