The quote is from Ken Olsen, the founder, and at the time of the quote, chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).
This statement was made in 1977, and is often repeated to show how far off predictions about technology and the future have been. There are several other such statements like this, a list of which can be found here.
The problem with the list, as the article notes, is that none of the statements were actually ever made, except for the one by Olsen, and as the author points out, even then Olsen’s statement was taken out of context.
Olsen made the comment during a talk at a 1977 meeting of the World Future Society in Boston. However, he was not referring to what we think of as “personal computers” today, but rather the concept of powerful central computers that controlled every aspect of home life; turning lights on and off, regulating temperature, choosing entertainments, monitoring food supplies and preparing meals, etc.
Olsen clarified that point to Digital historian Edgar H. Schein for Schein’s 2003 history of Digital:
“As Olsen explained to me at length and attempted to make clear, he thought it would be unacceptable to have the computer in the home controlling everything. Why would anyone want that? He did not object to the concept of a PC at all . . .”
So while Olsen’s quote was taken out of context with respect to the modern PC, it seems like we are certainly heading in a direction that will actually make his 1977 prediction completely wrong.
Smart homes and home automation systems are becoming much more common today. Appliances, lights, home security, thermostats, and entertainment systems that can be controlled by a PC, tablet, or smartphone are featured in many smart homes.
My guess is that Olsen would admit that he did not foresee such developments, and would likely be an early adopter of such technologies.
However, just because you can connect something to a network or the Internet, doesn’t mean you should.
Christopher Mims had a great story in the Wall Street Journal the other day titled “Dumb ‘Smart’ Gadgets: The Bubble Is Set to Burst“. In the article, Mims points out many of the devices that have been created under the broad category of “The Internet of Things”.
Here are some examples of such “smart things”: socks, toothbrush, plate, cup, fork, cutting board, stove knob, jump rope, shoes, shirt, aquarium, frying pan.
One of the specific products mentioned by Mims is Vessyl, a smart cup that can instantly recognize what beverage you pour into the cup. Stephen Colbert has a great satire on the virtues of the Vessyl. While the technology behind such an invention is incredible, I am not sure of how broad its appeal will be to individual consumers.
Todd Lemmon and Andy Bobrow have even created a web site that tracks these types of smart devices, called We Put a Chip In It, with the tagline “It was just a dumb thing. Then we put a chip in it. Now it’s a smart thing.”
One final device worth mentioning that is also highlighted in the WSJ article is the world’s first smart detector of the gas that we pass. That’s right, there’s a device (known as CH4) that you can clip on to your back pocket that will measure your gases and tell you what foods to avoid.
It seems like such a product is something Google would have dreamed up for April Fool’s Day, but it seems real, and here’s the Kickstarter campaign.
I can’t imagine the fun Saturday Night Live will have with such a product. It seems like the perfect companion to the classic remote controlled fart machine. (And just imagine the possibilities if you could create a smartphone controlled fart machine!)
I think if Olsen were alive today, he may have modified his famous quote a bit by saying, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in everything he uses in his home. That would be dumb.”
And he would be oh so right.