Butler Lampson is an Architect at Microsoft Corporation and an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at MIT. He received a PhD in EECS from the University of California at Berkeley and an honorary ScD from the Eidgenoessische Techniche Hochschule, Zurich. He holds more than a dozen patents on security, raster printing, transaction processing and computer networks, including the Ethernet. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. He received the ACM Software Systems Award in 1984 for his work on the Alto. In 1992 he was the recipient of the ACM Turing Award, the highest recognition possible for a computer scientist.
The ceremony will take place at 11am on October 7, 1996 in the "Aula Absidale" of Santa Lucia, via Castiglione 36, Bologna.
There are three kinds of things you can do with computers: computing, storage, and communication. Computing was the original motivation for computers. It is for simulating things: a star, an airplane, an economy, a box of animated toys. Storage is for remembering things: payrolls, airline reservations, office memos, libraries. Communication is for connecting people and machines: telephones, mail (both paper and electronic), television programs, the World Wide Web. It is the use of computers for communication that has the most fundamental effects on society.
Silicon semiconductors are the basis for computers. For thirty years their cost and performance has followed Moore's law: performance multiplies ten times every five years, or 100 times every decade, while cost stays the same. This means that the past doesn't matter, because it can be completely replaced every five years at negligible cost. So my boss, Nathan Myhrvold, can collect ten year old supercomputers that originally sold for 20 million dollars, just for the cost of shipping them. The magnetic recording that underlies storage and the fiber optics that underlie telecommunications are improving at least as fast. Moore's law directly affects the price and performance of computers, storage devices, and communication networks within a single building: every five years the computer on your desk is ten times faster, stores ten times as much, and talks ten times as fast to the machine down the hall. But telecommunications is different: your computer talks only twice as fast to the machine in the next street or the next city. This is partly because more things must change for communication to improve, but it is mainly because of history. For many years the technology for telephones changed very little. A large installed base of equipment and a rigid structure of regulation grew up. More important, there was no competiton to force change. In the words of Ivan Sutherland, it's easier to get a venture capitalist to give you money than to persuade the management of a successful company to try something new. The result has been a larger and larger gap between what is technically possible and what you can buy. Today it costs almost nothing to transmit information on an optical fiber and to switch it using semiconductors and computers. The price is still high, however. Digging ditches for cables is expensive. More important, there are still many restrictions on competition. But things are changing now all over the world. Every kind of information can be encoded digitally: voice, music, video as well as computer data. Many competing systems can transmit the same digital data: cable television, cellular telephones, satellite broadcasting, and wireless cable. It is cheap to convert information from one digital encoding to another, so different systems can easily be connected. One dramatic example: it costs about 100 lire to send the text of a book to the entire United States in digital form, using a digital satellite system built for television broadcasts. As telecommunications changes from a regulated monopoly to a competitive industry, important public concerns must be protected: universal service, free speech, fair markets, and public safety. Different services need to interconnect freely, like today's telephones and Internet but unlike today's television broadcasting and cable systems. Competition is beginning to collapse the gap between price and cost, making telecommunications much cheaper. The price will come close to the inherent cost, as it does for computers and most other products. The result will be a world that is connected much more closely, and in a much less centralized way than today's mass communications based on broadcasting. If you surf the Internet you will see some hints of this future, though today it is crippled by the high price of fast communication. When everyone can freely and cheaply share talk, music, pictures, and data, the effects on society will be profound. It is an exciting time to be alive.