Monday, May 12, 2008

Roger Revelle sees the future

In 1983 Scripps dedicated a new building, Ritter Hall, and invited folks to contribute to a twenty year time capsule. The sensible, and Roger Revelle was a very sensible man, view such exercises as opportunities. Revelle wrote

Time has passed so quickly that October 13, 1983 seems almost like yesterday. Yet higher education has been revolutionized during these 20 years. From being one of the most labor-intensive of human activities it has become a capital intensive industry.

The revolution in higher education didn't just happen, it came from computers. It began with IBM's development of a computer that could read handwriting - any kind of handwriting, no matter how strange - and could translate half-formed, ungrammatical sentences and misspelled words into good English. Some innovative faculty members immediately thought of using one of these machines to grade blue books. It turned out that the machine could do the job more rapidly and much more cheaply than graduate teaching assistants, many of whom were promptly terminated.

The next step came from the talking and listening, gully interactive computer developed by CDC for its PLATO programs early in 1992. This apparatus could give lectures and answer verbal questions from students; moreover, it could improvise professor type jokes during the lectures. It could also write equations and draw diagrams to illustrate what it was saying. Every now and ten, it would shoot a piece of chalk at a sleeping student. One enterprising chancellor - I believe he was at U.C. Irving - decided to appoint half a dozen of these machines to fill six faculty FTEs/ They were so successful and so inexpensive compared with faculty salaries (even though the initial cost was high) that soon every campus in the UC system had followed Irvine's lead.

Of course there was a little trouble with the Academic Senate. The Committees on Academic Personnel refused to recommend several machines for promotion to tenure, but they were quickly overriden in the name of economy by the vice chancellors - except in UC Santa Cruz. During the past 10 years, the new machines have replaced all assistant professors. As tenured professors and associate professors retire, they too are being replaced by machines. The financial savings are enormous.

In the last few years, an alarming new tendency has become evident. The students are also being replaced by machines. At first there was some question about whether machines could meet the admission requirements of the University of California, since none of them were high school graduates. But a few were admitted on an experimental basis, and all but one achieved a 4.0 grade point average. The one that didn't, turned out to be a defective Apple. "We mustn't let one bad Apple spoil the whole barrel," said the vice chancellor for Marine Affairs, as he threw the defective computer from the roof of Ritter Hall.
Defenestratiing computers is something we all yearn for too frequently.

There were other interesting and earnest contributions, including one from Walter Munk and William Nierenberg who wite that:
Climate predictions shall have made great progress . . .(insert advertisement for Scripps) short term climate predictions shall become as much a part of society's operations as weather prediction is today. . . .

Rational approaches to protection of the environment will continue to deveop using the increasing scientific knowledge deriving from our efforts. In particular, we will ahve a sharper understanding of the carbon dioxide problem and more precise recommendations as to actions needed to combat perceived adverse effects


Anonymous said...

Actually Revelle wasn't that far off the mark regarding text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology, which had both already become quite mature during the 1990s (see e.g. Rabiner). Natural language understanding was a whole other matter though.

Anonymous said...

This statement was particularly prescient:

The students are also being replaced by machines.

In fact Revelle even foresaw the replacement of one of his own former students with a machine look-alike.

Dano said...

I call GoreWin's Law and end this thread: "any argument similar to Algore is fat! or mention of Goreacle is grounds to close a comment thread". §14.2(a)(iii)



Anonymous said...


I'm guessing that Anon 11:33am is one of those robot students which Revelle was talking about. Perhaps he's the Apple which got defenestrated because he couldn't achieve a 3.0 grade point average on any subject other than churning out inactivist talking points.

Anonymous said...


It was a joke.

It is hard to deny that there is a strong resemblance between Al Gore and Commander Data -- and not just with regard to appearance. They talk in the same measured tones and are both very analytical (and as everyone knows, data invented the inter(galactic)net so there's also that similarity.

Most (intellectual) people would be flattered to be compared to Data. The guy is wicked smart -- and fit as Jack la Lane! (bet that dates me)

And Bi. I'm a physicist and my undergrad GPA was 3.5, so there goes that theory. :)

Anonymous said...

"I'm a physicist and my undergrad GPA was 3.5"

Hmm, that's what a defenestrated Apple machine will say.

Anonymous said...


With all due respect, I think you are simply mistaken.

Star trek's NOMAD is the paragon of a "defenestrated Apple machine" -- and as anyone who saw "The Changeling" knows, NOMAD could never admit to less than a perfect 4.0 (or perhaps 4.3 if its school gave out "A+")


John Mashey said...

Defenestrated computers? Mild.

At the Computer History Museum, we have the WISC, the first computer designed by Gene Amdahl (one of the the great architects, IBM S/360 and others.)

It has several prominent bullet holes, which lead visitors to the natural conclusion, i.e., "earliest example of a computer that really angered someone."

However, it wasn't that.

When the WISC was decommissioned at Wisconsin, someone kept it in their basement (originally for consulting), and later, a teenage son found it useful for holding targets for gun practice ... and missed sometimes.

EliRabett said...

Eli gotta admit that he thought that the Data-Gore analogy so good that to even comment on it was hopeless. Could not be topped

Anonymous said...

sometimes i think this blog is actually being written by a commodore 64 (and using a 300 baud modem to transfer it).

- LoadStar

EliRabett said...

110 baud, Eli uses two stop bits, a word processor written in FORTH and a dedicated PDP 8. The I/o is on paper tape