Science

Another look at groundbreaking inventions in ICT

Professor V. Rajaraman, the doyen of computer science education and research in India, has recently written a book titled: “Groundbreaking Inventions in Information and Communication Technology”, where he discusses 15 life-altering recent inventions. I discussed seven of these in my last article in The Hindu (dated September 13). Here, we discuss the other eight.

Replete with detail

Recall the seventh innovation, Computer Graphics. It has led to the generation and display of digital data as pictures and movies on a computer’s display. The Graphical User Interface allows us to point and click icons on the display, and for instance, start a Power Point presentation. It started with the computer “mouse” which moves a cursor on the display of a computer screen. In today’s hand-held computers, the mouse is replaced by an arrow on the touch screen.

The book is replete with details of the lives and achievements of the inventors behind these advances, and the technical details of these which are covered as “Box Items” (and there are 52 Box Items). Reading these will clearly inspire students and future innovators.

The next breakthrough is the development of the Internet, which, clearly, is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. It has allowed us to communicate through email, watch YouTube presentations and many other applications that we take for granted today.

Two important inventions led to the development of the Internet. The first was breaking up of a long data stream into smaller packets before they are transmitted, invented by Paul Baran and Donald Davies. The second was the standardisation of a protocol called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol) that allowed inter-connecting a variety of computer networks spread throughout the world using the existing telephone infrastructure, invented by Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn.

Reaching places

The ninth invention is Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS now can guide us in finding the best way to reach from place A to place B. Earlier, sailors looked at the position of stars in the sky to detect their own locations and routes. The discovery of the magnetic compass was helpful, and so was the invention of the wireless radio by Marconi (or JC Bose if you will). Prof. Rajaraman points out that when satellites were launched, it became clear that signals transmitted from a set of satellites could determine the latitude, longitude, and altitude of an object anywhere in the world accurately within a few metres. It was an expensive project spearheaded by Roger Easton, Bradford Parkinson and Ivan Getting and supported by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The tenth Innovation is the World Wide Web (or WWW), which has made the Internet infrastructure available for free. A user can access any of the billions of documents stored in computers spread across the world. This was made possible primarily due to the work of Tim Berners-Lee who designed a protocol called HyperText Transfer Protocol or HTTP to connect documents written using a language called HyperText Markup Language or HTML. Prof. Rajaraman points out: “WWW is thus defined as content formatted using HTML stored in computers connected to the internet that is accessed using HTTP”. In order to retrieve documents from the World Wide Web using a ‘phrase’ such as the: capitals of the States in India we need a software. This is known as a Search Engine which is the eleventh Innovation. Google is one such search engine that captured the market due to an innovative search algorithm invented by Larry Page and Sergy Brin.

Compressing data

The 12th innovation is Digitisation and Compression of Multimedia. Digitisation is essential for processing text, pictures, audio and video. When they are digitised they have enormous number of bits. This can be compressed without loss of fidelity in order to be transmitted economically. There are many innovative algorithms to do this, and these are described lucidly in the book. The next innovation is Mobile Computing. Wireless bands reserved for Industrial, Scientific, and Medical uses were de-licensed in 1985 by governments and allowed to be used for communication of data. This permitted portable laptops to be connected wirelessly to a LAN. The protocol for wireless communication was standardised and led to WiFi. The ensuing Internet access leads us to applications such as WhatsApp. The emergence of 3G and 4G mobile infrastructure resulted in smart phones.

In the Cloud

The 14th innovation is Cloud Computing. Excess computing power available with companies such as Amazon and Google that maintain huge computing infrastructure for running their businesses was offered to any one “on demand” and charged based on use. This became feasible with the advent of Internet and decreasing cost of communication.

The fifteenth innovation is Deep Learning. McCulloch, a neurologist and Pitts a mathematical genius modelled the human brain as a collection of interconnected neurons. This was simulated as a multi-layered neural network by Geoffrey Hinton and David Rumelhart on a computer. This model could be made to learn to recognise faces and speech by extensive training using enormous data. This is an aspect of AI that will be used in many future systems such as driverless cars.

(I am grateful to Prof. Rajaraman for his advice and corrections.)

dbala@lvpei.org

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 5:31:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/another-look-at-groundbreaking-inventions-in-ict/article32649326.ece

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