Your Obedient Serpent (athelind) wrote,
Your Obedient Serpent

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Weird Science!

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I'm running a space game using d20 Modern. I have some questions for the computer geeks in the audience, especially those versed in the historical development of computer technology. foofers, I'm particularly interested in your insights.

I'm taking advantage of the game's premise -- 21st-century Terrans cast loose in the Galaxy -- to play around with a a fun science-fantasy idea I've had cooking on the back burner for years now.

The Galactics, by and large, have all of the classic Pulp Sci-Fi technologies: antigravity, blasters, force fields, and, of course, FTL travel. They generate and store staggering amounts of energy with ease, and harness it in ways we don't even consider possible. SETI is quiet because the Galactics communicate between the stars via "hyperwaves" that we don't even suspect exist.

That's because, somewhere in the early 21st Century, Terrestrial science and technology took a wrong turn. Maybe it was a miscalculation in the complex mathematics of relativity and quantum mechanics. Maybe it was just a misinterpretation of what those formulas meant. Maybe we just missed something. Whatever the cause, somehow, we missed out on an essential technological development, something as fundamental to a spacefaring society as the wheel is to a planetary one.

However... this fundamental, universal, high-energy technology (call it "Teslonics", for lack of a better name) does not play well with the transistor and its descendants. Imagine if, everytime someone started a car, it set off an electromagnetic pulse. In Galactic science, semiconductors and solid-state circuitry are technological dead-ends, amusing curiosities at best -- certainly, nothing capable of doing real, useful work or channel any reasonable amount of power.

And because we Missed The Boat, we've spent the last six decades developing that peculiar little quirk of contaminated sand into a technology that few if any Galactics even suspect is possible. We can manipulate minute currents and voltages with a precision and subtlty that only a few long-departed races ever achieved -- and we use this impossible finesse to make toys, games, and fantasy movies.

My question is this:
Without transistors and integrated circuits, how far would computer technology have developed?
What directions might it have taken? What kind of information storage is involved (memory banks!)? Are vaccuum tubes the most likely alternative? Would the technology favor analog systems over digital?

My own impressions are that information technology would be much less ubiquitous, and thus much more primitive. Computers would would still occupy whole rooms, if not entire buildings (in the grand Pulp SF fashion); interfaces would still be arcane, still the province of the White-Coated Priesthood. I'd like to have a better feel for just what the implications might be, however.

(Since this is in many ways Pulp SF, there are robots -- but "positronic" robot brains aren't digital computers. They're analog devices that mimic the function of a biological brain -- perhaps a little too closely. You don't "program" a Galactic robot -- you train them and "tune" them. They're a little faster than organic brains, but their real advantages are a lack of physical fatigue and the ability to "tune" them to be the equivalent of a human savant, entirely focused on a single task. That doesn't quite cover the same ground as a lower-middle-class suburban home filled with dozens of devices that can perform millions or billions of mathematical operations every second. For the purposes of this discussion, we can safely disregard their existance.)

hinoki, you know the drill. Peek past the cut, and you'll find out why they say that "cheetahs never prosper."

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