Description of a PDA

I came across the following description of a PDA in a book a while back; I sent it out in email, but apparently never posted it.

...[It] was the standard size of all such units, determined by what could fit comfortably in the normal human hand. At a quick glance, it did not differ greatly from [a] small electronic [calculator].... It was, however, infinitely more versatile, and Duncan could not imagine how life would be possible without it.

Because of the finite size of clumsy human fingers, it had no more controls than [calculators]. There were fifty neat little studs; each, however, had a virtually unlimited number of functions, according to the mode of operation—for the character visible on each stud changed according to the mode. Thus on ALPHANUMERIC, twenty-six of the studs bore the letters of the alphabet, while ten showed the digits zero to nine. On MATH, the letters disappeared from the alphabetical studs and were replaced by ... the standard mathematical functions.

Another mode was DICTIONARY. [The unit] stored over a hundred thousand words, whose three-line definitions could be displayed on the bright little screen, steadily rolling over page by page if desired. CLOCK and CALENDAR also used the screen for display, but for dealing with vast amounts of information it was desirable to link the [unit] to the much larger screen of a standard [computer]. This could be done through the unit's optical interface—a tiny Transmit-Receive bull's-eye operating in the near ultraviolet. As long as this lens was in visual range of the corresponding sensor on a [computer], the two units could happily exchange information at the rate of megabits per second. Thus when the [unit's] own internal memory was saturated, its contents could be dumped into a larger store for permanent keeping; or, conversely, it could be loaded up through the optical link with any special data required for a particular job.

Duncan was now employing it for its simplest possible use—merely as a speech recorder, which was almost an insult to a machine of such power.

This is from Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth, written in 1976.

I read it in 1999. At the time, I wrote:

Okay, so a few details are a little off. The buttons are irrelevant once you have touch-sensitive screens and handwriting recognition, of course, and the three-line display is laughable. [Added in 2010: except that some phones still have this kind of display.] And storing a full dictionary takes a little more space than a Palm has. Infrared instead of ultraviolet. Megabits per second is a little beyond today's IR connections, I think (?), and most PDAs can't do all that and voice recording. But I suspect that a PDA that can do everything mentioned above—and, of course, much more—will be available within 5-10 years.

I thought the description was interesting primarily for two reasons:

  1. It comes remarkably close to describing a PDA. Arthur C. Clarke [...] can sometimes be spot-on in his fictional predictions. In 1976, an LED-display calculator was the closest thing that existed to what he's describing; I think that's an impressive gap to extrapolate across accurately. [Added in 2010: For example, the HP-25C and the TI-30 came out in 1976.]
  2. It falls ridiculously short of the mark in predicting the speed of technological development. The book in question [...] takes place in 2276. Instead of taking three hundred years to develop, the PDA he describes will take (I predict) less than thirty years.

Science fiction becomes dated so easily... Especially in talking about computers.

And now, of course, we have iPhones, and Android phones, and so on. I have a full dictionary on my iPhone, and a voice recorder, and a calculator and clock and calendar, and those are just five of the least impressive of the hundred or so apps on it—not to mention all the music and photos, and—oh yeah—a phone and web browser. And it can communicate over Wi-Fi at (theoretically) 54Mbps, probably a fair bit faster than Clarke had in mind.

I was slightly over-optimistic in 1999 to think this device might be available in five years, but I did say 5 to 10. (Most of it was available by 2004, but the last pieces of the puzzle—voice recording and high-speed wireless—took slightly longer, at least on devices I've owned.)

So, yeah, it took just over 30 years to get to something better than the tech Clarke was predicting for 300 years in his future.

This entry is not, of course, meant to denigrate Clarke's skills as a futurist; science fiction has never been especially good at, or especially aimed at, precisely accurate future prediction. On the contrary, the main thing that surprised me about Clarke's description was how unusually accurate a prediction it was in various ways (aside from timing), despite numerous inaccuracies; a far cry from the old sf stories that had starship pilots using slide rules. I suppose it could be argued that he was just taking trends in calculators and extrapolating them, and that that happened in the real world as well to some degree. But I still thought it was neat.

I suppose this entry ought at this point to go off on a discussion of the Singularity, but I really ought to be reading submissions, so I'll stop here.

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