Titan Supercomputer — Wikimedia Commons

The Evolution of Computing: Past and Future

  • January 3, 2018
  • 3-Minute Read

Modern humans have been around for tens of thousands of years; writing was first invented around 5,000 years ago; computers on the other hand have been around for barely 70 years. It is very clear the exponential growth of technology.

Computer themselves have their own evolution process, they started being huge, building-sized behemoths made from vacuum tubes and are now many orders of magnitude more powerful and fit into your pocket.

First Generation — Vacuum Tubes 1940-1956

Colossus Computer

The very first types of actual computers to ever exist, they were monstrous machines. They used vacuum tubes as circuitry and magnetic drums as memory, very inefficient materials.

They occupied an entire room and sometimes entire buildings and cost a lot of money to run, and worst of all generated a lot of heat and consumed a lot of energy.

Second Generation — Transistors 1956-1963

UNIVAC TRANSTEC Transistor Computer

Transistors were a big improvement over the vacuum tubes, even though still subjecting computer to overheat. Nevertheless it was hugely superior in terms of size, speed, energy and cost in relation to vacuum tubes.

Third Generation — Integrated Circuits 1964-1971

IBM System 360 Model 30

With the help of semiconductors the transistors could be miniaturised allowing to fit a ton of these small devices into a single chip. Integrated circuits helped gain a massive gain in performance and efficiency against the generations from before.

These were the first computers to be interacted with keyboard and monitor by a user.

Fourth Generation — Microprocessors 1971 Until Now

In 1971, Intel introduced the first microprocessor, invented by their employee Ted Hoff. The Intel 4004 allowed computers to fit on a desktop. What occupied an entire room in the early days now could fit into a single chip.

Microprocessors ushered in the era of modern computing, they are in your smartphone, your television and your microwave. They are everywhere.

The Future

The Fifth Generation is already underway; Artificial Intelligence will bring profound changes to how we use computers, instead of using a keyboard and a mouse, or even touch, in the future we might just think and the computers will understand us, even voice recognition will be outdated.

New materials are being used to attain greater levels of processing power, like superconductors and engineered materials through a process called molecular nanotechnology.

There is also the possibility that either the machines will merge with us or supplant us as the dominant species if they become sentient and competent at achieving their goals. An interesting read on the subject would be Origin by Dan Brown.

It is scary that we took millions of years to evolve, and the machines—if they ever become a species of their own—will take only a hundred years or so. Well, it will only be possible because they have help. In a way, we are the precursors.