You can’t expect Ivan to become computer-literate when he can’t get his hands on a computer, says Dr Richard Staar of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Speaking at a conference on Soviet education last week, he claimed that At the moment only 5% of Russian students are enrolled in computer courses and it is not unusual for high school students to see a computer for about 15 minutes a week. His observation reflects the situation at East Germany’s VEB Kombinat Robotron, the one enterprise in the Comecon countries that has consistently shown itself capable of building mainframe computers that work: computer time at the company itself is so scarce that students doing computer science with the company have to confine their use of the computer to the dead shift of two in the morning to 6 or 8 am – not the best time of night to find students alert and able to grasp new concepts easily. In the Soviet Union, the current five-year economic plan calls for the production of 1.1m computers by the end of 1990, and of these about 400,000 are intended for the 8m students in the ninth and tenth grades. Even if the Soviets do manage to deliver 1m personal computers by 1990, Staar reckons that would be far below their actual need. He calculates that the country needs about 28m personal computers to meet educational and other needs adequately. And not only is the gulf between computer technology in the US and the Soviet Union enormous, but the gap appears to be widening. One problem here is the time it takes to get anything approved – witness the protracted negotiations over the plant that Simon Engineering Plc is due to build in Yerevan (CI No 882). This endless procrastination tends to mean that a decision in principle is reached to build under licence – say – a Taiwanese clone of the IBM Personal Computer in 1983. At that time the 8088-based box would have been seen as quite contemporary and competitive – it was the year IBM introduced the original in Europe. The deal is announced and headlines around the world talk of the Soviets catching up. All goes quiet for a year or two, then at the beginning of 1986, it is announced that production will begin in 18 months. Three years later the machine finally goes into production, by which time the machine is hopelessly antiquated. And what is so frustrating is that given the limitations of the hardware they provide them with, the Comecon countries have some of the most skilled and inventive writers of software for scientific applications in the world, and if the computers were made available, the potential would be enormous.
The vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences has admitted that if the USSR increased the capacity of its electronic industry fivefold by 1995, it would still only be able to maintain the existing lag behind the West. Attempts to produce home-grown technology have proved futile – a copy of the Apple II called the Agate has been in production for three or four years, but output is lamentable, and many of the machines that are shipped reportedly turn out not to work. The only remaining sources for computer technology are Japan, Western Europe and the US, but CoCom restrictions hamper exports – and even with the recent relaxation on export of low-end 16-bit machines, the shortage of hard currency to pay for the things limits the potential for buying them in – the Soviet Union currently owes $37,000m to Western banks. The only other possibility is joint ventures with companies from the West – and the likes of Quest Group Plc, ICL, Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers Plc have been quietly negotiating with Moscow for three years now. But to complete a deal, the USSR will have to come up with some extraordinary financial incentives to make it worthwhile – even crude oil is presently in worldwide oversupply. And once those problems are resolved, there remains the KGB to be persuaded that a proliferation of personal computers is a good idea. In a country that strictly regulates access to photocopiers, the idea of personal computer users chattering to each o
ther over telephone lines scares the authorities witless – free exchange of ideas is not exactly high on the Soviet list of priorities. And then a personal computer with a printer attached is a simple printing press – can such powerful means of disseminating ideas be allowed into private hands?