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Friday, July 30, 2021

The new PC - from three decades ago!

 While looking for something else, I found this article that was published sometime in the early 1990s in an Indian magazine. It is a SciFi story of a future woman and her new PC. The 'future' in the story is probably 2007 or so! You just might find it still relevant although I had got the timeline rather wrong. Here it is, just as I found it, with no edits: 

The New PC 


- Sugata Mitra 


The new PC came as a bit of a surprise. It was only  two years ago that I had bought my present notebook. I still remember the amount of time I spent configuring it, that summer of 2005. I didn’t really know much about Operating Systems and things like that at that time. The guys in the office helped a lot, although I am not really sure that is a nice thing. Their motivation is always a little suspect, I suppose it’s the Older Woman phenomenon. At 45, I don’t really care. I guess I am lucky the young men still offer to help! 


The December 15 R&D Virus of ’07, later called the D15, is not a nice memory for me. It must have come down the mobile link from one of the music sites while I was driving. I think I said, “Ignore” without thinking, and my Agent, Gill, must have obeyed, thinking it should do just that rather than interrupt the streaming audio. Well, serves me right, because by the time I reached the office, the D15 had infected the battery intelligence and the changed voltages had already fried parts of my RAM. The system was working with only 16 Terabytes and I kept thinking it was Gill running some background programs until the capacitors started to pop. The notebook stopped entirely within a few minutes of that. Only a few seconds before the end, Gill managed to pump out a few hundred Tbytes on to an emergency server on the Web. Gill could be pretty stupid and insensitive for a 200Mb Agent, but I loved it for those last few seconds before it died. I still remember its doggy face frozen on the screen, and its thin emergency whine as it squeezed the full power of the old 2.2 Gigahertz CPU into compressing my frequently used data files and microwaving them out through our miserable 1Tbps connection. They say programs cannot die because logic chains are immortal once they are created, so goodbye Gill, hope you’re happy wherever you are. 


The new PC arrived on Christmas Day, 2007. It didn’t cost me a penny thanks to the Virus Insurance Act of ’02, thank God. Not that it compensates for the hassle of lost data but at least you get the machine back. And viruses can be vicious these days, ever since they started to auto mutate back in the ‘99s. Anyway, one lives and learns, I said to myself as I took the new PC out and threw the displastic carton into the sunny part of the balcony so it would evaporate quickly. 


It’s only when I took the PC into the study that I realised how much computers have changed in the last two years. This PC was just a black rectangle, about twelve inches by six and maybe an inch high. It was just under a pound and I stood there holding on to it wondering how to open it or switch it on. No luck. Finally, I put it down on the table to go look for a manual in the carton. I didn’t need to because the PC started to open up! Two solar panels unfolded from the top and spread themselves out turning a bit towards the study window. As they unfolded, they revealed the familiar dark blue keyboard framed in the gunmetal rectangle that was the antenna. At the lower corners of the keyboards were the shiny silicone lenses of the video receptors blinking quickly once every second as the black vidlids slid over them to wipe off any dust. I had heard of these bionic models but never seen one. It looked out of this world. The edges of the box were beginning to show more detail now. At the back was the projector lens, a tiny square of light with a full one hundred and eighty degree tilt and swivel, now projecting a test pattern on a four foot diagonal square on the left wall, the only place in my study where there is a blank wall. The left and right edges of the PC had illuminated bars for storage space and energy. Both showed full green and I wondered how much space I had, they say some of the recent models have over 800 Terabytes. The front edge of the PC had a row of indicator lights and a set of embedded sensors I couldn’t quite recognise. The indicator lights turned red, then amber and quickly green. I straightened my hair and fidgeted a little. 


“Hello Maya”, someone said from the back and I swung around nervously. “Sorry, I’ll adjust the surround sound”, said the PC, “ the ambient noise can sometimes confuse the initial settings”. 


“Oh. Hi.” I said feeling a little foolish. After all, my old notebook used to speak too. I adjusted my sari and felt more confident. The green lights in the front of the PC changed for an instant from rectangles to hyphens and back again. Like a faint smile, I thought. 


“ Tell me your specs, what kind of agent do you use?” I asked, adding a little wistfully, “ I used to have one called Gill.” 


“ I don’t use an agent, I am one. My name is Vonn. From Von Neumann, you know. I know the Gill agents, they stopped production almost a year ago, but quite a few are around on the Web.” 


“ Well, Gill was pretty efficient,” I began spiritedly, “ and I don’t think I like those green lights in front of you” 


“ Excuse me,” said Vonn, in a quieter voice, “ your sandwich toaster says you sometimes fix yourself a sandwich around early evenings on holidays, shall I turn it on?”  


I shook my head. 


“ OK, let me tell you a bit about myself,” said Vonn. 


“ I am a Bionic2 model, released December, 2007. I use the Cognitive Windows OS from Wintel Corp. as implemented on a Shockeley 799 CPU running at 24 Gigahertz. I have 640 Terabytes of memory with a dynamic RAM allocation to suit speed requirements. I am self powered and continuously connected to the Web for data, voice and media applications. I interface with all information appliances in your house and elsewhere”…. 


“By the way,” I interrupted, “I haven’t checked my mail today”. 


“You had some, nothing very important, I think. Would you like to see it, hear it or shall I just make a summary?” 


“ Are there any interesting ads?” 


“Well, there is a 3D one on liver reconstruction, they claim the reconstructed organ has better functionality than the real one” 


“No thanks”, I winced, “ Did anyone call?” 


“Yes, Robert called while we were speaking, he said he would drop by in a short while” 


“What did you tell him?” 


“ I said it was OK, you had already agreed to see him earlier” 


I gulped, “ How did you know that?” 


“ A Gill agent from the Web returned some data saved on an emergency server” 


“ Gill?” my heart jumped a beat, “Is it still there on the Web?” 


“ I think so. It said you don’t really like Robert much but you do see him on holidays”. 


“ Yes”, I laughed, “ he is kind of OK, he built my Home Page and put in some really funny lines” 


“ By the way,” said Vonn,” I have transferred your Home Page from that public server to my local storage” 


“ Hey, just a minute, isn’t this a client connection?” 


“There are no PC clients anymore. All PC’s are servers. All two billion of them. Only information appliances are clients. Like your toaster and other stuff around the house.” 


“Hmm. That sounds a bit risky to me. Remember what happened to my last PC?” 


Vonn chuckled. “ It won’t happen again”, he said, “ I have a simulation of myself running on the emergency server network all the time. If my body is destroyed, just get another one and I’ll be back”. 


“ The doorbell saw Robert driving up”, said Vonn. 


I started to fiddle with my hair again. “Try it this way”, said Vonn. It projected an image of me on the wall and opened a window with a reconstructed image with the hair thrown a little forward over the forehead. I liked it and tried to copy it with my hands until the two images looked similar. 


Robert knocked. He never uses the doorbell but Vonn was projecting his image on the wall. I was beginning to enjoy this. The December light had faded and the room was quite dark. The front indicators on my new PC had changed from green to the soft pearl white I like so much. I leaned towards Vonn in the darkness and smiled. 


“Let there be light”, I said. 


And there was light. 



Sugata Mitra works on Cognitive User Interfaces and Adaptive Systems. He has a Ph.D. in Solid State Physics and heads NIIT’s R&D. 

The opinions expressed by Sugata are his own and do not reflect those of his organisation or of the publishers. 

He can be contacted at 



That byline and the email address are the clues that dates the article to the early 1990's.