As Fifth Generation computing takes more definite shape, David Ellis goes crystal ball-gazing in an attempt to predict its musical implications.
No doubt about it, technology can be very seductive. If anything, it gets more seductive the further up the technological ladder you get. Take the highly enviable Lucasfilm Digital Signal Processor, for instance - a snip at $200,000, and just the ticket if you want to play the megaproducer game. Or Intel's new Hypercube, a network of 128 'computational nodes', each consisting of a 16-bit processor, arithmetic co-processor, and 256K RAM, all under the executive control of a 'cube manager.' It's seemingly capable of emulating the algorithmic parallel processing of the human brain - and yours for just $520,000. Then there's Japan's National Super-Speed Computer Project, now well underway in the mighty corporate hands of a consortium comprising Fujitsu, Hitachi, Nippon Electric Corporation, Mitsubishi, Oki, and Toshiba. It also has Government funding to the tune of $200 million, a raw computing power some thousand times greater than the Cray-type computer biggies of today, and is scheduled for completion in 1989 - price to the end user undisclosed at present.
Expensive machines merely for the pleasure of Joan Collins' toy boys, you think? Well, think again. This is what's been dubbed the 'Fifth Generation project', the new breed of supercomputer which some feel is about to alter the balance of power in the world, and which has prompted Sir Clive Sinclair to say: 'The Fifth Generation is the greatest battle-ground of the century. If we lose, we are out of the game.' And he's not kidding.
Because what really counts here isn't just the technology, but who's doing what with it. These supercomputers will thrive on data. Knowledge, information, call it what you will - data is number one in the Fifth Generation rush to create the ultimate Expert System. Already, vast numbers of Japanese and American firms are queuing up to relieve the wise of their lifetime's accumulated expertise. And that's not just in the fields that obviously fall within the aegis of information technology. The Arts are getting involved as well. Just imagine, an expert system that'd enable any Tom, Dick, or Harry to synthesise and produce album quality music on their 1990s home micro with all the codified expertise and experience of George Martin, Trevor Horn, and Steve Levine rolled into one glorious Music Producer 'knowledge base', and available at all good newsagents for just 100 European money units.
Fanciful? Perhaps - but perfectly feasible if market forces allow it. And that begs the question as to whether the Japanese music and micro industry will get a look in at the delights of the Fifth Generation. Some critics predict that Japan is out to do for the sale of knowledge and information in the 1990s what the United Arab Emirates do for oil now. But for a country with such a forward-looking policy on the 'data as commodity' front, it does seem mightily curious that they've allowed such an ill-conceived export as the MSX range of micros to slip through.
Actually, unanswered and unanswerable questions abound when it comes to the immediate effect of the Fifth Generation technology on you or I. Remember that a change in the balance of power is on the cards - not just from the West to the Far East, but also from hardware and software to knowledge itself. To quote Sun Tzu, a general of the Chou dynasty, 'Knowledge is power and permits the wise sovereign and the benevolent general to attack without risk, conquer without bloodshed, and accomplish deeds surpassing all others.'
And you thought the DX7 was powerful...
Editorial by David Ellis
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