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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Discourse 292 Computers and our Progress

Discourse 292
Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde


As part of the series Technology Our Saviour we have set out to discuss the contribution of computers to our lives, past and present. The computers, like the other instruments of technology we have discussed so far – the electronic voting machine, the agricultural equipments and techniques, and the GSM – do promise some great relief by drastically reducing the avenues of corruption and minimizing the effects of incompetence and other forms of human frailties that have come to characterize our failed state.
In the beginning was the brain that processes data on images, sounds, feelings, etc, which we daily come across in our life. Though the brain cannot be surpassed in processing such natural data (or what we call signals) that is perceived by the body, it is limited in its capacity to process and apply artificial one. The brain, for example, quickly perceives gravity and, within millionths of a second, processes it and concludes on the level of danger it might pose to the body. Signals are immediately sent to various muscles on what to do in order to maintain or restore safety if the gravity poses any danger. The same thing when we see a lion or a gang of armed robbers.
But ask the brain to distribute 17 cows to five children – two boys and three girls – with each male getting twice the share of a female. Here, small as the data could be, even the brain of the genius will first hesitate for some seconds or minutes before giving an answer. In most cases it will fail. This is because the data does not belong to the category of data it is naturally programmed to process. Its ability to process these artificial data – or what we call information – depends on its experience and genetic composition. This is not to mention its limited power of retention. Ask it to list what it did on a day exactly one year before and the brain will concede impossibility.
Man has recognized this limitation for long and has employed various means to improve his processing and retention capabilities. The first revolution in information technology was when man started to use symbols to record his experience. He thus invented pictures, then symbols and, recently, letters and figures to enable him handle facts, real or imagined. To this category belonged the inscriptions of the ancient empires of South America, the heliographies of Egypt, the letters of ancient India, the Arabic and Arabic numerals, etc. He also invented different media, at various times and places, for storage and transfer of information particularly with the growth of government. Thus, he inscribed, painted and wrote on stones, dried leaves, plates, walls, etc.
But of all his past inventions in information technology, paper was the most remarkable. It permitted him to access, preserve and transfer information using little space and cost. It was the second revolution in information technology. Though, unlike human memory, paper could not protect the information it carries against adulteration, it nevertheless allowed the global spread of large quanta of information beyond the local environment that stones and walls could afford. The printing press, until recently, relied solely on paper to produce our books, newspapers, reckoners, logbooks, and all documents of transactions. There is little doubt that paper will remain a necessary information medium for centuries to come.
The third revolution came with the advent of data processing devises few years ago. The power to program these devises has tremendously increased the ability of mankind to process information to extents that could not be imagined in the past. The power of arithmetic, for example, was limited to few individuals even among the elite, and for mathematics to much fewer. We had to rely on our memory of the multiplication table to solve many problems while many permutations may take a lifetime to solve. Things moved very slowly in the finance and academic sectors as a result. Some transactions took weeks if not months to execute and balancing of books was the nightmare of accountants. And in the field of word processing, it would require several years to write a book and several more to publish it. In the same manner, it will take years to conceive and design a five-storey building, generate its bill of quantities and analyse its tender. An army of personnel and large spaces were thus required to do every job. Though this provided employment, it made the price of goods and services very expensive, thus promoting poverty.
Things began to change with our power to program devises. The simple addition machine, for example, enabled accountants to reconcile their daily transaction records quicker, requiring only some few hours. Digital technology improved things because it improved storage by introducing memory and speed in the field of processing information. It always amazed me to just see the square root of a figure or logarithm of a number appear within a blink on the LCD of my first calculator in the 1970s, without using the log table. By then mega-frame computers have been helping to process economic, scientific and engineering data of many educational, financial and some few public institutions across the world.
Mega-frame computers did not make the difference that would qualify for a revolution though. Queues developed as many entries had to wait for their turns. The processing itself was very slow. It is sweet now to remember the index cards, the overnight punching, the editing, the analysis, and the printing of results which would take a day or two to complete. Up to my Masters degree in the mid-eighties, I never liked courses that compelled me to use the computers at the Iya Abubakar Computer Centre in Ahmadu Bello University.
But everything started changing quickly in the mid 1980s when computers began to be personalized. You can own a computer! That made the real difference. Personal computers brought convenience and the speed of their processing combined with the ever-increasing memory capacity has triggered the third revolution in information technology. It started in this country with importation of AMSTRAD and IBM personal computers that were using starter discs and very limited memories in mid-1980s. I remember then asking the computer to justify the margins of a document would take as much time as is enough to boil water and brew tea. Yet we were fascinated then by the fact that it is doing in thirty minutes or so what would take a printer many days to accomplish. Then came the era that was dominated by 286 and 386 PCs that were much faster than our previous “Locoscripts”. And, finally, Microsoft launched Windows 95 that simplified everything. In one computer, using one keyboard, you have a whole world of choices in processing information using various programs, including the ability to browse the Internet, that egalitarian market place for exchange of ideas and information that was never imagined before.
Suddenly, some of our frustrations with life in the developing countries began to disappear. After initial resistance, the conventional became old fashioned. Academicians who could not lay hands on recent copies of journals, books and encyclopedias for over ten years could do so now on the Internet. Schools and universities can now process and keep record of students within a short time and with minimum risk of error. Examination bodies are more efficient. JAMB completes the marking of over 700,000 candidates in just a week. Candidates can register online and download their results there. We can participate in international discourse without attending seminars. We can reach out to friends through emails without using the post office or courier. Now with twitter, facebook and a variety of other social networking products, the scope of our interaction is simply explosive. What a relief!
But nowhere is the impact felt more than in the service industry. The banking sector is now wearing a very amiable face in terms of services. New generation banks started transacting online, and behold, the conservative older ones followed suite. We can now cash our cheques anywhere, anytime, and withdraw cash conveniently using the Automatic Teller Machine facility. We can also transfer cash quicker, and, more importantly, safer. The competition in the industry is intense. I could not have imagined this when I went to withdraw money as little as N30.00 from my salary account as a lecturer in 1983. It used to take hours.
Also, engineers no longer need to depend on the drawing board and paper. The AutoCAD has relieved architects and engineers of backaches and dirty fingers arising from long tenures over drawing boards and association with printing machines. Using their computers they can design readily, draw quickly and print repeatedly without stays and stains. Quantity surveyors can now measure designs promptly, generate bills and certificates easily, and go to tender punctually. Life in the elite private domain is generally easier, thanks to Silicon Valley.
But the computer is yet to be appreciated by the public sector and certain policies do severely limit the opportunities it offers. Employees in the public sector have been reluctant in adopting computers because they regard them as competitors and restraints. They have the capacity to replace them and expose their corrupt practices. Much of the corruption in this country is preserved today by this attitude. Ghost workers cannot survive the computer age, for example, because workers can easily be verified using a common database. And if e-government were to be thoroughly adopted, then superiors can supervise the jobs of their subordinates with astonishing ease. The public too may have access, albeit small, to the inner activities of government. Thus, it has taken over a decade before state governments in this country started to computerize their payrolls. Other sectors of governments at the federal and state levels are still unwilling to expose themselves to the prudence and vulnerability of the computer. Forget about local governments that they would wish computers would never reach them. But reach them they would!
As a result, access to information is difficult in the public sector. Wrong decisions are taken as a result. I doubt if there is any government in this country that can precisely say how many employees it has; nor could it even give an accurate account of its teachers, their stations, qualifications and so on, for example. Some may never do so. Planning is, therefore, difficult, monitoring impracticable, and result impossible.
The crooks would definitely like an indefinite extension of the chance they currently enjoy. That is why the politicians are against electronic voting machine. It is very difficult teaching old dog a new trick, the English say. But technology, as we have said before, even in retrogressing countries like ours, is incipient, progressive, pervasive and, finally, conquering. Those interested in making fortunes in the future – our students and young graduates – must befriend the computer and become its master. If they fail to do so, they will one day find employment even in government difficult to get.
Fears have been expressed on the prospects of increasing unemployment as computers penetrate governments and companies. But this has always been the case whenever a new technology is introduced. Our local weavers in various households were mercilessly exterminated in the 1950s and 60s by the textile industry; the horse or donkey by the automobile; the canoe by the boat; etc. Nobody, certainly not the Nigerian Labour Congress, can spare our workers who even before the advent of computers were merely wasting away in public office. No amount of strikes will save them from the tide of technology, not even the law. The determined among them, however, can upgrade his capabilities and carve out another niche in the economy.
In conclusion, I will declare that computers are not enemies, I believe, unless we decide to make them so. For decades, they are the most reliable friends I have made. Through their different software, they make our work easier. We stay at home and execute several jobs. We visit markets and make purchases from shops in Tokyo and London and return within seconds using our Mastercard on the Internet without any fly ticket or visa. Computers give us access to up-to-date information without visiting libraries overseas. They increase the power of our brains by doing what the latter may never do. They mitigate many of the sufferings that our failed state inflicts on us. More importantly, they represent avenues, through which our hope for a bright future will be realized, a future that is competent, less corrupt and modern in every sense. They are here to stay, with or without our permission. They are welcome.
“Though I am the last to arrive, I have come with what ealier ones could not come with”, said the computer through the eloquent composition of the compiler of Al-Atheer electronic library.

29 April 2010


Due to engagements I have recycled this article that was first published in 19 July 2006 in Leadership. Many of my current readers might not have come across it. For copies of future articles, please send your email address to if you have not done so already.

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