In the past, such traditional indicators as population, natural resources, gross national product, balance of payments and military might have been used to measure national power. Now, however, economists discern a new yardstick: computer power. And it may well be that the US has such a commanding lead in the development, construction and programming of machines to do its brain- and paper-work that other industrial countries will never catch up.
“There is no doubt,” says Charles Reed of the State Department’s office of international scientific and technological affairs, “that American superiority in computers plays a central part in the Europeans’ concern with what they call the technology gap.” Other observers have also noted how quickly computers have pervaded American society. Princeton’s president Robert F Goheen thinks their impact can be compared to Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. And Zbigniew Brzezinski, professor of political science at Columbia University, has even introduced the phrase “technetronic” society to describe a country “shaped culturally, psychologically, socially and economically by the impact of technology and electronics.”
In the US, the technetronic age has begun to take shape. Some 39,500 computers — about 65 per cent of the world’s total (chart) — have already begun to reach into every facet of life.
The whirring, humming machines solve problems too complex for human mathematicians, help economists make policy decisions and may even revolutionize the class-room. Soon computers will be selling tickets to concerts, plays and baseball games. Someday they may be programmed to run most industrial and manufacturing plants. Prodigious memories and fast calculating speeds give computers their power.
For instance, an IBM 360-91 unveiled at the Goddard Space Flight Center last week [shown at top] can do in a single minute calculations that would take a human mathematician 4,000 years to do by hand (with a desk calculator, the job would take “only” 100 years). The computer’s main assignment will be to keep track of satellites.
While the US long has employed computers in military and space operations, Washington now increasingly uses some of the 3,000 Federal computers to help avert domestic crises.
At the Department of Commerce, for instance, a computer helps economists predict how the economy will behave during the coming year. Programmed with a model of the US economy, the computer shows how changes in investment, tax rate, consumer purchasing power or other factors affect economic health. How will the technetronic age change the US?
Brzezinski sees two major consequences. First, he predicts explosive progress in the sciences and therefore in other fields. Once computers and automation have freed man from having to spend most of his time working, Brzezinski believes that society will seek out and cultivate human intelligence for scientific, medical and other careers. And what will the rest of the population do? “The achievement-oriented society,” says Brzezinski, “might give way to the amusement-focused society.”
Another challenge comes from computers themselves. The tape and ferrite-core memories of computers and their banks of lightning-quick circuitry challenge even the ingenuity of their own inventors. “Our problem,” says one technician, “is describing what we want from the computer. The computer’s capability has far outstripped our ability to use it. Most of the problems and challenges of the technetronic age now stop at the shores of the US Europe and Japan, by all (human) calculations, are still back in the old industrial age. The US, for instance, has more than ten times the computer capacity of West Germany, the next biggest computer user. Furthermore, most of the computers operating were made by US firms.
Realizing how badly they lag, other countries have begun to make a deter-mined effort to catch up. France, for instance, has launched an ambitious program — the plan calcul — aimed at developing an independent national computer capacity. Two factors precipitated the decision: the threat of control implicit in General Electric’s acquisition of one-half interest in Machines Bull, the largest independent French computer company, and the US refusal for two years to sell France the computers needed for the creation of the force de frappe.
In Britain, progress has been substantial. There are now more than twice as many computers on line as there were two years. ago. Furthermore, the British Government has spent $36 million in the last few years on computer design and application. The biggest obstacle, however, seems to be the innate conservatism of British businessmen.
Even in Germany, US firms control almost 90 percent of the market, a fact that worries Bonn. “Please note we have no ‘buy German’ act in this country,” science minister Gerhard Stoltenberg once told IBM’s Thomas J Watson Jr, “but we have to do something for the computer industry to keep from becoming an underdeveloped country.”
That something is usually subsidies, and pressure to use domestic machines. The German computer industry has responded well. Instead of competing directly, German firms are now exploiting narrow slices of the market, like machine control, where US competition is not as strong.
For all Russia’s concern with technological progress, her use of computers has not been impressive. “Russia,” says the State Department’s Reed, “is behind the US in computer technology. They produce fewer, less sophisticated machines, and there is not as much nongovernmental use in Russia, as in the US.”
Also Russia’s highly-centralized economy may be too complex even for a computer. One expert, Viktor Glushkov, wryly claims that all the central planning problems for one year would take more than a year to solve with a million computers making 30 thousand calculations a second.
In Japan, US manufacturers have dominated the computer market through licensing agreements with local firms. The Fujitsu company, however, has taken part of the computer field without relying on US help. Consequently, it is the only Japanese firm not restricted by US licensing agreements from selling its machines abroad. A major reason for the gap, of course, is the tremendous cost of developing and producing computer systems. And even in this area, the rich are likely to get richer while the poor get poorer. The US Government’s investment in computers has streamlined operations and produced savings measured in the millions each year. This frees funds that can be plowed back into still more computer power.
Top photo: IBM System/360 Model 91 by NASA (c1968)