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Editor's Letter

Hello, from the mysterious world of computing

In the 1980s, the first personal computers were vaguely mysterious and utterly fascinating. Our latest magazine issue on computing shows that today that's even more true.

October 27, 2021
Mat Honan
Mat Honan
Robyn Kessler

I’m Mat Honan, the new editor in chief of MIT Technology Review. This is the first issue of the magazine I’ve had the pleasure of working on. Maybe you have been reading Technology Review for years, like me. Or maybe this is your first issue. Either way, I’m excited by the opportunity to make this magazine something you look forward to reading every time it appears. I hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together. 

I want to start by making you a promise about Technology Review: We’re going to make it worth your time to read and worth your money to subscribe. We’re going to bring you incredible stories about things at the edge of impossibility. We’ll expose hidden truths, and hold the industries and people we cover to account. We’re going to help you understand the ways in which science and technology are reshaping the world we all share. We’re going to make you dream and wonder about the coming years. We’re going to make you miss your stop because you just can’t quit reading. 

As you likely know, each issue has its own theme. This issue is on computing—a topic so utterly central to what we cover it seemed important to tackle it head on. 

When I was young, personal computers were something entirely new. They were vaguely mysterious—you had to know the language—and utterly fascinating. I spent countless hours tinkering on the one in my mother’s home office, writing simple programs, mapping out dungeons in Zork, and trying to understand the universe inside that box. 

Today computers are, obviously, everywhere—in every pocket and automobile, even on the walls of our homes. And although computers, and computing, have become far more ubiquitous and accessible, their roles are often even more mysterious now than they were when I was a child in the 1980s. Virtually all aspects of modern life are now modulated by systems beyond our control. This is not merely because the network or the service or the algorithm is maintained by some unseen entity. As Will Douglas Heaven notes, the very nature of how computing works has changed with the rise of artificial intelligence. We want to help demystify things a bit.

This issue explores how we arrived where we are, and where we are going next. Margaret O’Mara’s sweeping introductory essay grounds the trajectory of computing in its greater historical context. Siobhan Roberts’s exploration of the beguiling P vs. NP question traces the long road Sisyphean researchers have traveled in trying to find a definitive answer. Chris Turner’s review of A Biography of the Pixel starts by exploring the complex history of “Digital Light” and builds to an unexpected, utterly delightful treatise on the triumph of Steamed Hams. (You’re just going to have to read it.) 

But history is meant to serve the present. Morgan Ames delves into the hype around One Laptop per Child to help us find a better way toward ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society receive true equity of access. Fay Cobb Payton, Lynette Yarger, and Victor Mbarika explain how we can think about building true pathways into the industry for underrepresented groups. Lakshmi Chandrasekaran’s examination of the triumph of silicon over other seemingly fallow technologies (remember spintronics?) shows how those alternatives may ultimately prove their worth. Meanwhile, Clive Thompson brings us the story of ASML, the Dutch company whose revolutionary process is keeping Moore’s Law alive, at least for now. 

But it’s the future where things get weird and exciting. Alán Aspuru-Guzik is combining artificial intelligence and robotics in an attempt to accelerate materials discovery—with the ultimate aim of solving really thorny problems like climate change. And then there’s Antonio Regalado’s story on brain-computer interfaces. I frankly had to just sit down for a little while and think after I finished reading it, imagining a coming era that brings not only the ability to control machines with our minds, but also shared agency with an artificial neural network. It’s wild stuff. 

There is, of course, much more to explore within these pages. I hope you also find something that grabs you by the collar and makes you stop and think. And I hope to see you again soon. Let me know! I always want to hear your feedback. You can reach me on email at mat.honan@technologyreview.com, or yell at me on Twitter, where I am @mat

Until next time.

Deep Dive

Computing

ASML machine
ASML machine

Inside the machine that saved Moore’s Law

The Dutch firm ASML spent $9 billion and 17 years developing a way to keep making denser computer chips.

The Steiner tree problem:  Connect a set of points with line segments of minimum total length.
The Steiner tree problem:  Connect a set of points with line segments of minimum total length.

The 50-year-old problem that eludes theoretical computer science

A solution to P vs NP could unlock countless computational problems—or keep them forever out of reach.

This new startup has built a record-breaking 256-qubit quantum computer

QuEra Computing, launched by physicists at Harvard and MIT, is trying a different quantum approach to tackle impossibly hard computational tasks.

DHS logo glitch
DHS logo glitch

The US is worried that hackers are stealing data today so quantum computers can crack it in a decade

The US government is starting a generation-long battle against the threat next-generation computers pose to encryption.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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