The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. - Arthur C. Clarke
Note: Here is the original IF blog post, inspired by an MIT Technology Review cover.
Late last night around 10:30p I broke a rule that I usually manage to keep, and looked at my Twitter timeline.
I saw a tweet from someone I don't follow brought to my attention by someone I do follow, Hugh MacLeod @gapingvoid. Hugh pointed out that Facebook had just bought WhatsApp for $16 billion, and helpfully included a prior tweet, which noted that the purchase was the rough equivalent of NASA's entire annual budget. In the moment, I typed "words fail" and passed along the message.
Despite my reservations about the value placed on this particular acquisition, in one important sense Facebook's buy is a story about innovation, and one you probably won't read elsewhere if you follow social media. Let me explain.
Committed to the project of going to the moon and fresh from a colossal stimulus program called World War Two, the country marshaled its considerable engineering and scientific know how to meet the challenge of safely sending humans to the moon. One of the problems that had to be conquered was steerage. Lunar landing and Earth re-entry were frankly dangerous since human manipulation, alone, of any control system designed to accomplish those tasks posed substantial crew dangers.
Fortune, however, favors the experimenters. A working prototype of the integrated circuit had been developed in the prior decade, though as a technology it languished without any real application. NASA and its subcontractors nonetheless took an interest in it because punch cards and vacuum tubes just wouldn't do. Developers explored ideas like fault tolerance in silicon and code. Together, those efforts would result in the Apollo Guidance Computer, an example of embedded computing and the first machine to fully realize the latent possibility of the integrated circuit. It made real time, computer-aided guidance and control possible while lowering the considerable human risks associated with lunar landing and Earth re-entry.
The connection to Facebook is simple. From phones to microwave ovens to gaming consoles, today's conveniences simply would not be possible without the integrated circuit and embedded computing.
If you watch the wonderful video posted here, you'll notice Armstrong and Aldrin call out "1201" alarms, which was the AGC complaining of overload. Thankfully, the software had been engineered with priority scheduling, which allowed the computer to continue to help its human occupants attend to the task at hand.