The father of optic fibre


Well, I’m going to join the thousands of well-wishers, and express my excitement on Professor Charles Kao’s obtaining the Nobel Prize in Physics.

I’ve worked under four Vice-chancellors since joining CUHK, and Kao is the one I’ve admired, respected, and actually liked, the most. Although he received his university education and doctorate, and worked for a long time, in the West, he had always come across to me as a perfect example of the ‘gentleman’ in Confucius morality. For example, he never relied on flamboyant rhetoric in speaking. In fact, he was not a very articulate speaker. He did not strategise to get what he wanted: he simply led by example. He demonstrated to us the attributes of a real scholar: no political games, no unsubstantiated publicity; do the hard work, throw yourself wholeheartedly into your academic discipline. He didn’t need carrots or sticks, yet you would want to work harder because of him. He was a most open-minded person. That was why he never saw the need to reprimand those radical students who treated him impolitely at meetings with students.

From newspaper reports in the last few days, I realized that thousands of other people had in fact been gnawed by the same query for years: How come he still hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize. When I found out that it was optic fibre that made broadband possible, and it was Kao who invented optic fibre, I thought: Wow this is the greatest invention in the twentieth century! Think about all the scientific and technological leaps that have become possible in the last two decades because of the Internet (and because of optic fibre). Think about all the things we can now do on the Web which were unimaginable just only twenty years ago! (As I have said before, I was born in the age of no computers and no Internet. So I was able to witness the huge impacts they had brought on human life.)

When Internet connection first came about, it was through telephone lines. And the catchphrase of the first half of the nineties was 56K connection. And because Internet traffic was so slow, surfing the Web in those days was a test of patience. (But to be fair, at that time, people were totally fascinated with 56K connection already.) If you want to imagine what it was like browsing a web page before the mid-nineties, picture yourself fiddling with an ATM machine: it is all-linear; slow; and text-only. (Mouse’s hadn’t been invented because there was no need for them.) Today, Internet connection has gone up to 1000M, and this is possible because of optic fibre.

So, all those students taking my CALL course at CUHK, take note of this: Without Professor Charles Kao, there would be no optic fibre. Without optic fibre, there would be no broadband. Without broadband, there would be no Web 2.0. Without Web 2.0, at least two-thirds of the global computer-assisted language learning we have today would not have come about. And the key figure in the technological backdrop is a man called Charles Kao. And Charles Kao was once the Vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

CALL and the brave new technology world

While busy preparing for the course on computer-assisted language learning (CALL) in the last few weeks, I couldn’t help being provoked again by the question that had been sitting in the back of my mind for several years: Is technology a blessing or a curse?


Unlike my son, I was not born after the advent of computer technology. Computers have always been a part of my son’s life, since his birth, and for him, a world, or a life, without computers, is unimaginable and unthinkable. But not me. I had lived in a world with no computers for a few decades before computers started to step into people’s lives towards the close of the eighties. And like most adults at the time, I first reacted to computers with skepticism. But soon after I tasted the conveniences that computers brought about, I quickly let it into my life, thinking what a helpful invention it was. But like all new inventions, computers didn’t meet with no social critics. There were already writers (this was in the nineties) who began to query the impact of computers on our lives. For me, some of the queries were nostalgic: “I like the feel of turning over a page when I read”; “People will be further alienated from each other if all they do is sit in front of computers all day”. Some of the reservations came from older adults who habitually stayed away from new gadgets: I remember taking a group of veteran teachers to the computer lab one evening in 1996 to do something on the computer and then finding that more than half of them didn’t know how to turn on a computer! They had been avoiding touching a computer for years!


Yes, I had my nostalgic moments, too, like I had been refusing to use an electronic or online dictionary for years, preferring the feel of dictionary pages. I even told myself that using a traditional print dictionary was a status symbol: the status of being a well educated person. But eventually I gave in to the convenience of online dictionaries, and I can’t recall the last time I laid my hands on a paper dictionary. So by and large, I embraced computer technology with open arms; I even considered myself extremely lucky to be able to live the later part of my life with technology.


But once the technology ball has started rolling, it becomes impossible to harness. It gains a life of its own. Web 2.0 is a case in point. Now, computer technology has interwoven itself with every fabric of our life. It has totally changed the way we communicate (how many people still have long voice conversations on the phone?); the way we make friends (I have many friends on Facebook, and what is the nature of this kind of friendship?); how we experience information (my son, using copy and paste and google searches, can put together an essay or a Powerpoint presentation within minutes, but how much thinking and understanding takes place in the process?), and how we relate to other human beings (think of the billions of anonymous bullying, insulting, humiliating, messages posted on discussion forums around the world each day).


The problem is: computer and information technology will always develop faster (people have begun to talk of Web 3.0) than our ability to cope with its impact on how we live our lives. Technology is about speed. The faster we can do things with technology, the more things we want to do, and then the less time we have for thinking.


Of course, I’m fully aware that in ten years time, all my worries may be proved to be nostalgic: This is what life should be like in the brave new technology world! Who cares about thinking? Why shouldn’t we trash every other human being? Why do we need to talk with our voice? Who needs to understand?


So, here I am, 30 hours before my first CALL class with 28 serving teachers. Yes, at this moment, my concerns are mainly technological. Why have the technology people still not produced speaking bots that can engage in a meaningful voice conversation? Why is there still not a programme that can mark compositions reliably and provide feedback in a meaningful way? Why hasn’t anyone developed a Second Life virtual world purely for language learning? Why are online dictionaries still so limited with their capability?


Hence, my biggest concern about CALL at the moment is that technology is still not sophisticated enough to revolutionise language teaching and learning. But if technology does develop to the point envisioned by techno-futurist Ray Kurzweil (in the book The Singularity is Near), where in 2030:


Information technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, where no distinction can any longer be made between human and machines, nor between physical and virtual reality; any use of any language will be digital information; the World Wide Web will become a World Wide Mind …


There will be no need for CALL talk, because that’s the only way it is done. But is that a world I want to see?


Of course, I’m just being nostalgic.