Computing Meets the Physical World

Butler Lampson


Citation: The Bridge, Spring 2003, pp 4-7.

Links: Abstract, Acrobat, Web page, Word.

Email: This paper is at



This is the transcript of a talk given at the NAE Annual Meeting, October 2002 as an introduction to a seminar on the topic of the title.

The field of computing has always changed rapidly, and it is still doing so.  The changes are driven, more than anything else, by Moore’s law.  Many people think the pace of change is slowing, or even that because we already have the Internet and Google, there is not much left to do.  I hope these papers will convince you that this view is entirely wrong.

For the last 50 years, new applications of computers have followed a pattern, as one manual activity after another has become automated.  In the 1940s, it became possible to automate the calculation of ballistic trajectories and in the 1950s of payrolls and nuclear weapon simulations.  By the 1970s, it was possible to create reasonably faithful representations of paper documents on computer screens.  In the 1990s, we had the equivalent of a telephone system for data, in the form of the Internet. In the next two decades we will have embodied computers, machines that can interact with the physical world.