January/February 1983 CIPS Review - 25th Anniversary

Canadian Information Processing Society

CIPS has served well but biggest challenge is ahead

Hans von Baeyer remembers the days of "military monsters" and CIPS's early contribution. But the task of providing truly current statistics awaits.

By Hans von Baeyer

Twenty-five years of CIPS: that takes me back to the time when the word "computer" conjured up the early military monsters of SAGE vintage, with tens of thousands of power-consuming and heat-producing vacuum tubes; when the concepts of satellite communications had not yet reached beyond Arthur Clarke's visionary speculations and when Sputnik was just about to appear on the horizon; when transistors as a practical replacement for vacuum tubes began to be a dream in the designer's head; and when microwave radio relay systems were still a novelty, barely a few years old.

Coming from the communications side, for several years my work had been concentrated on finding ways and means to extend communication links with reasonable reliability into the Arctic. Gigantic tropospheric and ionospheric scatter installations were our toys. Their information carrying capacity was as small and limited as their physical dimensions were huge and bulky.

Branching Outpresented a stock-taking of computers and computer services in the country, of data communication facilities and trends. . . .

Appetite for information

And then came the problem of satisfying the appetite for information of the big central air defence computer. We were to oversee the transport of digital data from all over the country, over thousands of miles on hundreds of different routes - with a minimum of erroneous "hits".

A special planning group was organized with representation from all the telecommunication carrier organizations in the country, the telephone companies, the telegraph companies, and the federal government. Our goal was to find out how best the existing facilities could be utilized to form a country-wide digital network.

That was in 1958-59, and it ushered in the period of the '60s in which many changes took place. There was the rapid growth of the use of computers, the practical application of concepts such as time-sharing, and the spread of computer service bureaus. It was the hectic period of modem development for transmission of digital signals on telephone lines, the beginnings of direct digital transmission on cables and radio links, and the digitization of analog signals - particularly in the form of pulse code modulation. In the late '60s satellite communications were introduced.

By the end of the decade the federal government had consolidated policy development by forming the Department of Communications. Federal regulatory powers were combined first for broadcasting, then for all telecommunications, in the formation of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC). Telesat was created under mixed private and public ownership, and the computer industry grew at an unprecedented rate.

At that time, the need became apparent for a forward look at the possible impact of the marriage of computers and communications. The result was the formation of the Canadian Computer/Communications Task Force (1971/72), under the auspices of the Department of Communications.

Its final report, Branching Out, was published in 1972. It presented a stock-taking of computers and computer services in the country, of data communication facilities and trends, of public policy issues, of economic, social and cultural concerns, and recommendations for government action.

At the base of it all was, of course, the rapid growth of computer use as documented by the pioneering work of CIPS with its annual computer census.

Computer systems were still identifiable entities then. Their numbers could be defined for different categories, such as super-large, large, medium, small and mini, or in terms of their purchase or rental value. Predictions for the decade of the '70s could be made by straight extrapolation. (The omnipresent "micro" being used as a component in all kinds of apparatus, rather than as an entity by itself, was still far away.)

Areas of discrepancy

Comparing the projections Branching Out made in 1971 with the actual conditions at the end of the '70s and the beginning of the '80s, it is clear that there are two main areas of discrepancy.

First, there was the underestimation in 1971 of the speed of the development of chips, with the resulting dramatic cost reductions and the explosive spread of computer applications - particularly after 1975. Second, Branching Out underestimated the time required for adaptations of institutions and organizational practices to the new possibilities offered by technology.

On the first point - the impact of chip development - I need not elaborate; it is self-evident. The fact that in 1981 Canadian sales of home computers alone exceeded the $100-million mark proves that the computer is well on its way to entering the mass market.

(In 1972 Branching Out showed a pyramid of computer use with the upper half occupied by "current" and "expected" use in large, medium-sized and small institutions and businesses. The much larger area of the lower half, reserved for "potential" growth in the home market, was still considered purely speculative.)

On the second point, however, that of the process of institutional adaptation - Branching Out had overestimated the speed of development.

An example is the field of electronic funds transfer systems (EFTS). In volume II, Branching Out still identified its views with the then-current visions of the imminence of nationwide transfer systems. We believed they would reduce the use of cheques and simplify retail operations, by introducing point-of-sale terminals directly connected to financial institutions.

In actual fact, it is taking much longer than predicted to develop such electronic money systems. This is mainly due to the time required for solving legal questions, and to problems in achieving the necessary inter-industry agreements between financial institutions, retailers, computer companies and communication carriers.

However, within the banking world itself, the emergence of automatic teller machines, and - even on an interinstitutional level - of automated clearing houses, are clear indications of the gradual implementation of the visions of the early '70s.

Suggested a secretariat

After Branching Out was published, the government issued a green paper on computer/communications policy. One of its recommendations was to set up a small computer/communications secretariat to monitor the situation continuously. It was to be in close contact with industry and the public, and was to work with a committee of government departments that had an interest in the field. At least here was one small group that collected information and kept under survey the rapid evolution of the information age in its manifold aspects.

One of its products was a 1978 draft report on the growth of computer/communications in Canada. It was a paper that created much discussion between government and industry groups, and focussed attention on national and international policy issues.

Unfortunately, the Secretariat fell under the axe of government restraint programs in 1978. Since then there has been no consolidated monitoring of the rate and direction of developments, and of emerging areas of concern. This would seem to be a regrettable situation, in view of the explosive spread of computer applications and the increasing sophistication of available communication services.

One has only to reflect on the imminent shifts in industrial and business practices, with their effects on job markets and training needs. The introduction of new technologies like that of the "office of the future" , a large-scale increase in the use of computer-aided design and manufacturing methods (CAD/CAM, robots, etc.), and changes in the distribution of the printed word from paper to computer terminal, are already having a great impact. (The first "book" has recently been commissioned which is not to be distributed in traditional form, but will be available only by computer access.)

There are bound to be far-reaching changes in the structure of society, that will affect institutions, organizations and the individual. A monitoring of this evolution through regular reviews and statistical evidence is, I think, the least one can do to raise public awareness of the issues involved, and the measures that could be taken to keep the situation under control.

With the regular publication of statistical information - in particular, the annual Canadian Computer Census, CIPS has rendered invaluable service to the country. But even here, the speed of technological development has had its effects.

By including in the computer count small-sized units which are not covered by the CIPS census - in terms of physical size or rental value, notwithstanding capacity! - the total count would have been four times the census number tabulated in 1980. By the second half of the '80s, the count is likely to be closer to 10 times the census number. And even that would not cover those units sold as components for assembly in some other apparatus.

This and other gaps in the availability of statistical information (previously dealt with, at least in part, by the late Computer/Communications Secretariat) are apparent. It is to be hoped that some co-operative approach between the private manufacturing and service industries and the government can be developed, to provide the necessary information on which future public policy can be based.

I would like to express this hope as a challenge to CIPS for the coming years, combining it with my congratulations for the work accomplished during its first quarter-century.

Dr. Hans von Baeyer, former president of Acres InterTel Ltd., headed the Canadian Computer / Communications Task Force during 1971-72.