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Lecture: "A History of Computing and Automation," with special guest Kjeld Schmidt
Lecture: "A History of Computing and Automation," with special guest Kjeld Schmidt
WhenWednesday, Jan 29, 2020, 12 – 1:30 p.m.
Campus locationBill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering (CSE2)
Campus room691
Event typesLectures/Seminars, Special Events
Event sponsorsHuman Centered Design & Engineering
Target AudienceOpen to the public

Please join Human Centered Design & Engineering for a special event  with the Department's Winter 2020 Department's Distinguished Speaker.

A History of Computing and Automation
Kjeld Schmidt

Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, and University of Siegen, Germany
Automation is nothing new. Human kind learned, millennia ago, to exploit causal processes such as cooking meat and plants by controlled use of fire, the brewing of beer and wine and cheese by controlled fermentation, the making of ceramic vessels and metal tools by exposing minerals to high temperatures, etc. They were ‘automatic’ in as much as the underlying processes were naturally occurring processes; they would take place spontaneously, without human intervention. The key issue with these technologies then was to learn to control that the underlying natural processes were maintained within certain boundary conditions.

Later, automatic processes of a rather different kind emerged; they are ‘artificial’ in that they do not occur naturally but, rather, are constructed; they consist in replacing the manual control of the movement of hand tools (grinding stones, scuttles) by a causal mechanism that controls the movement by transforming and transferring kinetic energy by means of gear trains, cogs, rack and pinion, etc. As a result, manual processes became processes occurring without human intervention — as long as certain boundary conditions were maintained.

While this technology underpinned the industrial revolution, from the development of watermills and windmills to that of spinning machines and power looms, the scope of its application nevertheless was severely limited, because the construction and maintenance of automatic machinery based on kinetic mechanisms is labor intensive, and, worse, increasing the scale of machine systems was hampered by the inexorable loss of energy in extensive gear trains.

Electromagnetic control systems lessened these limitations somewhat, but it was only with the development, after WWII, of the electronic digital computer for purposes of mass-calculation (for scientific, engineering, and military purposes) that the inherent limitations in kinetic mechanisms was eventually overcome. The decisive technological advance was the stored-program architecture that provides the conceptual basis for control mechanisms in the form of ‘software’ and the ‘manual interrupt’ function that underpins interactive and collaborative computing. Not only are software machines orders of magnitudes faster than kinetic ones; they are radically less expensive to construct, modify, and combine into integrated large-scale machine systems, and at the same time, interactive computing affords fine-grained and highly reactive automatic control mechanisms. As a result, the very concept of ‘automation’ has been transformed. Computing technology is the universal control technology: the computer can be made to incarnate any control function, be it a spinning machine, a machining center, a typesetter, or a jukebox, and can be combined to create machine systems of a global scale.

The talk will elaborate the development of technologies of automation and computing in general and will focus on the how the challenges of meeting requirements of work practices and resolving practical issues have shaped computing technology from the end of WWII until today.

About the speaker

Kjeld Schmidt is Professor of Work, Organization, and Technology at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, and Senior Professor at the University of Siegen, Germany.

Initially a software programmer (1965-72), Schmidt studied sociology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and obtained his MSc degree in sociology from the University of Lund, Sweden, in 1974.
Schmidt has been involved in the research area of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) since the 1980s and has played a key role in defining the field.

Bridging from philosophy to sociology to computer science and encompassing ethnographic studies, conceptual analysis, and development of demonstrator prototypes, his research primarily has centered on the conceptual foundations of CSCW research. He is the author of Cooperative Work and Coordinative Practices (Springer 2011). In addition, he has published 70+ peer-reviewed journal articles, conference papers, and book chapters and has co-edited 27 books and special issues of scholarly journals. Kjeld Schmidt has been Editor-in-Chief of the international journal Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) since its launch in 1992 and has at the same time been centrally involved in organizing a large number of CSCW conferences.
Schmidt was awarded the honorary title of dr.scient.soc. in 2007 and in 2013 he received the EUSSET-IISI Life Time Achievement Award.

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