Bento Lab vs. the Apple II

September 4th, 2017 10:01 AM
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Bento Lab, a portable DNA analysis kit that was funded on Kickstarter in 2015 and 2016, was recently profiled in The Boston Globe. At a tenth the cost of a traditional lab setup, Bento Lab kits "represent a cracking open of a once-cloistered field of knowledge" and a democratization of the life sciences. "What can be achieved with Bento Lab is largely limited by the user’s imagination and ability," writes reporter Linda Rodriguez McRobbie.

Like most readers of this blog, my scientific interests stray more toward the technological than the organic. But the article bridges that gap with this apt metaphor:

[Harvard University genetic biologist George] Church described Bento Lab as "an Apple II moment." The Apple II, among the first personal computers made for the masses, changed computing in ways that are so fundamental that we can hardly appreciate them. "There were computers before the Apple I or the Apple II, cheap computers, but they were really geeky, they had wires hanging out of them. They didn’t have the right form factor or ease of use," he explained. "This, I think, is that moment."

I'm reminded of seven years ago, when World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov declared the Apple II as "the last technology that could be thought of as revolutionary". Whether it's biology, artificial intelligence, or personal computing, the Apple II continues to be an era-defining invention, demarcating a line in history before or after which everything came.

While its place in history is unquestionable, the Apple II shouldn't be unique in being considered a technological revolution. There other innovations that have done as much, if not more, than the Apple II to increase access and affordability to technology. Bicycles greatly expanded access to resources and job opportunities and continue to do so even today in third-world countries. (Even Steve Jobs called the computer "a bicycle for the mind") Radio and the telephone allowed the verbal exchange of ideas across great distances. Airplanes opened up the world to travel and tourism, allowing unprecedented access to new peoples, cultures, and environments. (And yes, while air travel is expensive, it's no more so than the Apple II was when it was first released.) The World Wide Web democratized publishing, giving voice to everyone's opinions and expertise. I'm not talking life-saving technologies, but life-changing. Some of these creations came before the Apple II; others came after, built on its foundation. Yet would we feel silly comparing the Bento Lab to the World Wide Web, in that one is a tangible product and the other is not?

That metaphor may be flawed, but I'm emboldened to make it by the comparison of the Apple II to a portable DNA kit. The Apple II started as an esoteric hobby and went on to revolutionize multiple industries. The Bento Lab, with its much more specialized function, will likely be praised within certain circles but remain unheard-of otherwise. But a more apt comparison might be difficult to draw, as any product similar to the Bento Lab has, by its nature, not drawn attention outside its target audience — unlike the Apple II.

I'm always intrigued by the contexts in which the Apple II turns up. When I first read about the Bento Lab, I thought of Amazon.com and e-books, which made agents and editors into optional gatekeepers that anyone could bypass. Amazon didn't invent e-books any more than Apple invented computers, but both made these platforms more affordable and accessible. In that sense, Bento Lab has succeeded — but it's no more an Apple II than it is an airplane or the World Wide Web.

Baby Boomer inventions that changed the world

December 23rd, 2010 10:26 AM
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Many amazing technologies have been invented over the past hundred years, allowing humanity to travel and communicate in ways and at speeds unprecedented. Yet the people behind these developments have not yet made it into our history books. While today's students learn about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, they're more likely to know pop culture stars like Steve Jobs than they are modern inventors like Steve Wozniak.

The Web site SecondAct.com recently compiled a list that offers long-overdue acknowledgement to 25 such geniuses and their inventions. The list includes not only geek icons such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, and Dean Kamen and his Segway transportation device and his portable dialysis machine, but also lesser-known heroes such as Gail Naughton and her synthetic skin products, and Sally Fox's Foxfibre naturally colored cotton.

It should be no surprise that the Apple II, considered by some to be our last technological revolution, made the list, as did its responsible parties:

Steve Wozniak, who was born in 1950, and his future partner Steve Jobs, born in 1955, both grew up in the San Francisco area and got to know each other as summer interns at electronics manufacturer Hewlett-Packard. Though neither finished college, they helped launch a technological revolution that transformed our culture. In 1977, they created and marketed the Apple II personal computer, which included color graphics, a sound card, expansion slots, and other features that made it the earliest machine to resemble today's PCs. It arguably did more than any other product to usher in an age in which computers would become as ubiquitous as TVs and telephones.

It's an honor just to be nominated — though had SecondAct.com presented these inventors and inventions in order of importance instead of seemingly randomly, the inclusion of the Apple II would be questionable, or at least laughable: it's sandwiched between bacterial cement and Sildenafil (not named here by its more common moniker so as to not trigger spam filters). I suppose all three keep people indoors, and a few may've even prompted some late nights.

Most of these inventions had humble beginnings; many have since become household names. Few of its creators have enjoyed similar fame. Thanks to SecondAct.com for its steps to rectify that situation.

Garry Kasparov: Apple II was last technological revolution

November 4th, 2010 10:31 AM
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In fewer than 70 years, the twentieth century went from debuting the horseless carriage to putting a man on the moon. Such rapid development was made possible by many new technologies that were not so much refinements on previous inventions but were wholly new creations.

In the decades since then, we have continued to refine those technologies, making them smaller, faster, and cheaper. In doing so, have we lost the ability to create and innovate?

One chess grandmaster thinks so. Garry Kasparov, who held the title of World Chess Champion from 1985 to 1993, recently pointed to the Apple II as the last technological revolution, marking our country's technological developments since then as indicative of a "culture of optimization." Wrote Oliver Chiang of Forbes:

… humans are still using many of the same fundamental technologies invented in the past couple of centuries, like the internal combustion engine or the airplane. "Call it lack of courage or complacency, but to a certain degree we lost this passion for the sweeping changes," Kasparov said.

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I agree with Mr. Kasparov. In 1977, the Apple II was a machine heretofore inaccessible to the average consumer. It was not only a new medium in which to perform existing tasks, such as painting and accounting; the personal computer represented a new way of working and playing. Since then, the function of the personal computer has greatly expanded in scope, thanks in no small part to both the Internet and multimedia capabilities, which have revolutionized such concepts as communications and filmmaking. But the computer itself has not changed much in the last thirty years. Computers have gotten smaller, from mainframes to desktops to laptops to netbooks to smartphones — but they're still counting in ones and zeroes, just more of them than before. When are we going to stop working within the limitation of bits and start tapping the potential of quantum computers and qubits?

Maybe these developments aren't just in the future; perhaps we already had the right idea but got sidetracked. Is it a coincidence that Mr. Kasparov's reign ended the same year the last Apple II rolled off the production line?