High tech dreamers

The University of Queensland has been producing students who stand
on the front-line of computer evolution for more than half a century.

High tech dreamers

Credit: unsplash.com

Credit: unsplash.com

Dreamers were abundant in the middle of the last century – and the brilliance of their ideas illuminated the path for UQ. But not even Professor Sydney Arthur Prentice, the father of computing at UQ, could have imagined how far we would come by 2018.

Credit: heypik.com

Credit: heypik.com

Professor Prentice was instrumental in the University acquiring its first computer – the behemoth GE 225 Automatic Digital Computer – in 1961. According to the UQ Computer Centre manual, it was “fully transistorised, consists of a Central Processor with a control console and typewriter. Both paper tape and punched card input/output are provided with an auxiliary arithmetic unit and a high speed printer”.

Fast forward to 1968 and computing had already become an integral part of the University’s future plans. Two postgraduate computer courses were offered, the Diploma in Automatic Computing in the Faculty of Science and the Diploma of Information Processing in the Faculty of Commerce and Economics.

But computers and computing still found critics. A 1969 letter to the editor of the computer centre bulletin (Vol 2, Number 10, October 1969) from Malcolm A. Colston said that it seemed ludicrous that he had to wait longer for his data cards to be prepared than it took to fly to the moon or travel around the world.

“If the University is able to spend a large sum on a modern computer, surely it should be possible to provide those ancillary services necessary to ensure its efficient use. If one has to wait for over two weeks to have one's data prepared, efficient use of the computer is not being made.”

It took two weeks and five days to prepare Mr Colston’s data cards, but just four minutes to run through the GE225. (Mr Colston went on to represent Queensland as a Federal Senator).

In California in October 1969, two computers spoke to each other – one at Stanford Research Institute and one at the University of California. This game-changing event ignited passions in researchers and students at UQ.

By 1970, there were 79 students studying in UQ’s Automatic Computing and Information Processing diploma courses.

Enrolments increased as computer fever took hold. The GE225 was retired in 1977, and by 1980 the advent of the personal computer was changing how computing was taught. The Computer Science department installed a computer lab filled with Tandy Corporation TRS-80 computers.

Courses included more than just programming, encompassing networks, graphics and even artificial intelligence. UQ was embracing the future, ensuring students would graduate and guide the next generations of computer evolution. Courses offerings expanded to include Bachelor degrees and a Masters of Information Systems.

UQ research and courses were at the forefront of technological advances, and in 1980 student enrolment was growing rapidly.

In 1981, the University installed the Southern Hemisphere’s first 10 Mbps “experimental” local area network, allowing data to flow around the campus at high speed. A year later the first computer virus was set free. Elk Cloner, written by an American high school student, was injected into a computer game in 1982 and spread.

Networks were all the rage and, while the Internet was still a dream to be realised, networking in Australia was taking shape. Since that first communication between computers in the US in 1969, Australia’s universities had not been idle.

The country was littered with small networks built on the back of expanding university and commercial computer systems.

But it was not until 1986 when the director of the UQ computer centre (now called the Prentice Centre), Alan Coulter, rallied Australian and New Zealand universities that the South Pacific Education and Research Network (SPEARnet) was created. By 1989, with the inclusion of CSIRO, this was renamed the Australian Academic Research Network (AARNet).

Students and researchers now had access to state-of-the-art technology and a network connecting them around the globe. The Internet was in its infancy, but computer viruses and hackers were popping up everywhere. Hacking and viruses where usually innocuous, with bragging rights being of more importance than any malicious act.

Over the coming decades computers spread beyond laboratories and into every part of university life. Technology advanced at an astronomical pace. People were connecting in every way, from Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) to real-time video conferencing.

The connectivity and the ubiquitous nature of computers have had a dramatic effect on society. People have become dependent on computers to communicate, for social interactions, and for business. Short delays in the download of a web page elicit Colston-like frustrations.

Viruses are now more destructive and have been joined by attacks from ransomware. Hackers and cybercriminals make large amounts of money with data and identity theft. Safety and security become increasingly challenging in our connected world.

A long list of threats now hangs over the Internet and, aside from the hackers and viruses, we now have cyberbullying, fraud, identity theft, phishing scams, copyright infringement, hacking and even cyber warfare.

AI and thinking machines are becoming commodity items, with systems appearing in living rooms to respond to voice commands, predict actions and offer advice.

UQ continues to project into the future, planning courses and research around the needs of tomorrow. More than 1100 students are preparing to take on future challenges, arming themselves through courses that teach machine learning, data analysis, human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, and more. These students will leave UQ well equipped to invent new ways for humans and computers to work together, safely and securely.

Graduates can now leave with majors in Cyber Security, Data Science, Programming Languages, Machine Learning and Scientific Computing.

New dreamers are appearing to help take us to the next phase of people-computer interactions. These are researchers, students, innovators and creators who will make sure that the computer-human relationship is safe – that everyday people can enhance their lives without fear and with confidence that their information will not fall into the hands of nefarious characters.

A history of computing at UQ

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