Wolfgang Back Interview for Scene World Magazine (English version)


Interviewer: Today I’m
speaking with Wolfgang Back. You are an institution
in the field of computer journalism. The “WDR Computerclub“ for example, was one of the first
TV-shows on German television, which brought the subject of computers
closer to the masses, right? Back: Yes
Interviewer: And before that, I think you were also part of
the “Hobbythek“ together with Jean Pütz, from 1974 till 1981, weren’t you? Back: Exactly, and during that
time Jean Pütz and I were in a kind of marriage because we did
everything together. We went out and around a lot and we
learned a lot, for example, I learned how to bake bread.
Normally you wouldn’t be able to bake real bread and you would
think about it from a scientific perspective. Why should you make sourdough with rye flour, why can’t you make sourdough
with wheat flour? All of this had to be learnt first and we
always did that by visiting a German federal research
facility, which had researches in that particular field. Wheat
was researched somewhere in or close by Detmold. We used to
spend up to a week there and we came back as these master
bakers with all these grant theories. We learnt about sourdough
and one thing we noticed back then was that the ordinary
bakers have never learned that much about sourdough. But we
also only learnt that from a scientific point of view. Well,
we studied at the university before that. I studied electrical
engineering in Aachen but I have never really done anything with that. Actually, I studied high voltage technology but
I never really did anything with that either. Instead, I went straight into electronics which was a lot more interesting.
We have accomplished a lot with “Hobbythek” and the thing we just talked about was one effect of that. We were talking
about the two lenses in my eyes, the ones which blur when
you get older. They have been replaced and when I had surgery,
the anesthetist suddenly said: “Tell me, do I know you? Did
you ever used to bake?” and I thought “What does she want
from me?” and I told her that it had to be “Hobbythek” that
she was talking about and she nodded and said: “Exactly.” The
next time, when the lens in the second eye got replaced, she
had actually baked bread for me with the “Hobbythek”- recipe
from the year 1976 and she told me that she still uses that recipe.
That’s a success. Interviewer: And you will
always remember that, right? Back: (laughs) Yes, these are the type of
experiences that you can be really happy about Because you have changed something
and, in some way, started something new. Interviewer: “Hobbythek” – The
bread baking stuff sounded more like “Die Sendung mit
der Maus” for adults… Back: Yes, but we did a lot more than that.
For example we made our own wine and distilled our own Schnaps. I participated
in all those activities but that is also kind of the reason why I left.
I participated in all the stuff you
would need when you are stranded on an island and you would
have to keep yourself entertained. When Jean Pütz started doing cosmetic stuff
later, I though I was not needed. And since cosmetics weren’t my field of experience,
I decided to switch over to computers. And for a long time I had a lot of fun
with the computers. We were university students in Aachen
and we were able to complete all our
assignments, even the exams, but we were minimalistic students. We
lived in Belgium and had a big house over there, a small lake, the
premises were about 10,000 square meters
large and we had an old VW without the chassis, just the bottom
part of the vehicle. With that, we could drive around and get our own wood from
the forest nearby. In fact, that means that we weren’t around the campus a lot.
But that didn’t really matter because we always got through somehow. We were able
to get some things signed, which wouldn’t be possible anymore these days.
For example, that we were attending
a seminar when we were actually not there. At the end
everything went well most of the time. Interviewer: Its kind of
hard these days, since everything gets checked
electronically, right? Back: Yes, we probably would be able to
get it done anyways (laughs), because we were pretty fast regarding
electronics and also pretty handy with the soldering iron. That was our life.
When we came to Belgium, there were only two bell cables, which were
our source for an electric current. Interviewer: The so-called bell wires, commonly speaking. Back: Kind of. These two cables
were our only source for an electric current, which
we took as it was, since if we had asked for more
current sources we would have been thrown out because
we weren’t registered. Interviewer: Oh, okay. Back: Yes, yes. So we worked
with this small amount of current. We did our laundry by
rerouting the current to the gas heater, which we then hung
up over the washing machine. We simply took the V-belt,
opened the machine, threw the V-belt over and it worked
with the power of the bell cables. There was no electric
meter to read, there was no bill, that’s why you do stuff like that.
You had to be pretty crafty to get it done like that.
Our time in Belgium was a wonderful. That was
back when the colored TV was just coming out. We were students
at the university and we were the only ones who could
fix people’s broken colored TVs. That means, we had each
night one or two cases of television repairing and we
were able to live pretty well out of that kind of work. Even
though everyone knew that colored TVs were going to be
sold, the repair shops weren’t prepared for the colored TVs
really when they came out. Interviewer: For Radio and TV technicians? Back: Exactly, and when a TV
was brought in they just stood there and couldn’t do anything.
They just didn’t know how to adjust colors, how to do this
or how to do that, and right there, we found ourselves a new
source of income. It went on like that because the technicians
were on to us, (which we loved). During that time I had
a Dutch girlfriend, who had a brother who was an electrician,
a tinkerer, who knew that I also liked to do handicrafts.
He asked his sister to tell me that the “elektor”, from the
Netherlands, a magazine for electricians, had to be translated
into German and that they were looking for German speaking people.
So I applied there and sent them some articles I
had written before. I didn’t have a clip to attach the
articles, so I took a resistor to clip them together. When the
editor saw that he said: “We’ve gotta hire this guy.” (laughs).
And after the electrical era started we slowly started
to deal with computers too. Interviewer: So you didn’t
have any problem with getting references since you already had
previous experience, did you? Back: No because back in the
university, I was one of the best students in the
digital technology section because I knew all the chips,
the 7400, 7413, 7466 and so on. I knew how to handle
them and how to solder them. This was one of the reasons
why I eventually came to the television industry
where I met Jean Pütz. Jean Pütz wanted to make a TV show
called: “Introduction in the digital technology”.
Back then I’ve already been with the WDR channel in the
science section with Dr. Siefert. Older people may know
him from the moon landing. He was the big player in the moon landing.
I was giving a presentation about
communication systems in a TV show called “Wissenschaft
heute”, I believe. And in this moon landing, they used a
communication system. There have been multiple
communication systems over the years. Does anyone still
know the “Chappsche System”? Interviewer: I am probably too young for that. Back: This was something Napoleon used
to deliver messages fast over great distances. The hands on the steeples
could be arranged in this or that direction and for all the different
arrangements was a code. Kind of the same concept applies for computers. There
have been people watching the steeples or town halls and copied exactly what
they saw. Other people did the same and so on. And that’s how you could
deliver a message, for example from Mainz to Paris. Within an hour the message
could even get to the Mediterranean. That’s truly remarkable. But if there
was fog at night you eventually couldn’t see very far so it didn’t work.
You had to have a good weather in order for the system to work. These
stations were manned by war veterans. For example people who lost a leg in
the war. They continued working for Napoleon in these stations, well continued
working for the towns. There even had been a communication route from
Koblenz to Berlin, also via these steeples. All these things have been
forgotten these days even though the telephone was invented. It’s a pity that
these things have been lost because they were great milestones in the
development of communication channels. Interviewer: That is why I make these
interviews with pioneers, for example like you are one in the journalism section.
So the knowledge won’t be lost. Back: Yes, and I have started very early on
doing journalistic work, which was because of my dad. He has
been a teacher and an instructor of teaching
post candidates. They were future pastors who had to give lessons
in school and they had to learn how to deal with kids and how to teach them religion.
They always stayed with us for six to eight weeks and one of them was a very passionate
hobby photographer. He found a dark room in the school, even the
teachers didn’t know about it. He taught
me everything there is to know about photography. He taught me
how to take a photo, how to enlarge them, how to fixate them and so on.
He was teaching me the right way to
take photos and I thought: You are a
pretty good photographer too, so I took some photos,
which I personally liked too, and sent them to a newspaper.
That was during grape harvesting season, I am from the Lorelei, you know.
The photos pictures were published
and the coolest thing was that I received 20 Mark for it. So, I
thought this was a good thing to do, and I started writing for
the newspaper at the age of 14. I wrote
articles I am still today in awe of on how I got
the ideas to write them. From time to time
I had arguments with my father because I wrote
about the shipping industry. My father
was obsessed with bridges. I don’t know if
you know Sandershausen, I don’t know if you
know the Lorelei? Interviewer: Yes, I have heard of the Lorelei. Back: Yes, but there was no bridge and I
was in contact with the man who owned the ferry there. He was in opposition of
a bridge. I got a lot of material from this guy and then my father always
said: “There is again something in the newspaper. I want to know who this dirty
fellow is, who writes those articles.” Interviewer: That was his son in this case… Back: Exactly but
he never found out. Anyways, now I kind of
knew how to deal with journalism and local journalism. I wrote a
lot. As a student in the lower grades, I had a basic salary of 250 Mark. Think about
it, this was around 1957. An engineer maybe earned around 400 Mark. It worked out
pretty well for me and I never left the journalistic field.
Even when I went to attend university in
Aachen, I did something like that. A friend of mine and me would
be sitting there and listen to the police radio and as soon as something big happened
which involved human injuries, we would drive to the scene of interest. I had a
small car, a Prinz 3 model, and in the back of the car I
had an enlarger and curtains on the windows,
which I could close and create a dark room in the back of my
car. We were faster than all the other journalists. Soon we had to study weird
subjects like tube technology, even though we all knew this technology had no future.
The professor told us that if you go into space, you could remove
the glass surrounding the tubes because
there is a vacuum and the tubes could function without the
glass. All nonsense since we know it would all be over soon. Then the moon landing
came in 1969, almost at the end of our time at the university. We all knew that they
had a computer with them, less than a C64. Interviewer: Yes, exactly. Back: Yes, which was
partially hand wired. It is truly remarkable how far
they got with only this little computer power. A lot
of people doubt that the moon landing even happened,
but that’s nonsense. Interviewer: Ah, these are all conspiracy theories. Back: Someone should
tell them that there is an array of mirrors up
there, which you can use as reflectors. You
could send waves or signals up there and
they would be reflected back to earth. And
if the moon landing wouldn’t have happened,
these mirrors wouldn’t be there either and you
couldn’t receive any signals from them here on earth.
These are conspiracy theories and
they are just nonsense. A few nights ago they
aired the original night on “alpha”. I woke
up and watched it until 5 in the morning. In
1969, we have waited a long time for some to
come out of the shuttle but when finally someone
left the shuttle, we were drunk and asleep (laughs).
Now I have seen what I missed back then.
It was great. Interviewer: Actually, the tube technology
is kind of popular these days, for example you can buy a sound card with tubes on
top of it for a couple thousand euros. Back: Yes, there is a lot of
retro stuff around nowadays. Technologically it’s a
step back, but it brings people back to a time they
feel in touch with. It makes me happy too, but I don’t
need a sound card with tubes on top of it. Back
then when we started the “Computerclub”, something
like that was total nonsense because nobody thought
people would watch something like that. But we have already
gotten somewhere by then because we already had the
BASIC code, which we used to broadcast information via
the television. With the BASIC code, we could
broadcast the following text without anybody knowing:
“Hello dear computer friends, if you liked what you saw,
please write us a lot of letters so we can walk around
the WDR studios and tell people how many letters we
received about the show.” And it worked. You have to
use some tricks sometimes. Interviewer: And I have
to add that BASIC just had their 50th anniversary
a couple years ago. Back: Yes, but we had a special
BASIC, we had a BASIC code. This was very convenient for
people who were coding at that time, since you could record
it on a data recorder. There were already a bunch of different
computers at that time, for example to erase the
monitor screen someone used a CLS-Clear-Screen and someone else
used a Print-Character-String. All of this wasn’t compatible.
We made it compatible by doing it for the C64 and then
there was Gosup100 and in the 100 was the routine for “erasing”
imbedded information. One guy had CLS-Return and he
deleted the monitor screen and the other guy had, I am not sure,
a 12 or 14 character String and he deleted his screen too.
This lasted pretty long because we could broadcast programs
like the perpetual calendar, because they were written in BASIC.
We didn’t have BTX yet, which we could have used to copy it.
We also didn’t have the Internet yet. I am
still proud that we did it with our own data medium. You have
to think about it this way: Computers were not that easy to
access if you lived out in the countryside, because you
couldn’t just run to your local computer store. You could buy
one of those things but after that you would have to deal
with them yourself. You would have to wait until Sunday or so,
until a show was broadcasted by us. Something new came to
the countryside without us having to drive to the city to get it.
This probably would not have lasted very long and
it needed to be improved a lot, which we partially managed to do.
You couldn’t imagine how some people got a hold of this information.
A lot of these people are in big business
today and got into it because of us. We then created a
computer club with over 60,000 members. There were these little
cards and when we were at the CeBIT, executives would come
up to us and show us their cards and say: “Look, soon
1782.” It was great. It was fun. Interviewer: How did you
even fund this show? Because, as far as I know,
at that time there wasn’t anything like GEZ or
something like that, right? Didn’t this eventually come
in the end of the 70s? Back: No, the GEZ has been around from
the beginning. There was money. At the beginning of the “Computerclub” we had to
air outside the regular broadcasting times. Interviewer: Ah, okay. Back: Normal programs aired at 4 o’clock
PM while we would have to air at 3:30 PM. I had to call the director before
every single show and he said:” Just do it, then!” That’s how we slowly made our
way up and at some point we had some resonance. And then they said: “Ok, the
‘Computerclub’ is an actual show now.” Interviewer: So you had to kind of fight for it? Back: Yes, we had to. I could give
you a couple of examples. For the credits of every show we had
to go to the graphic designer and he would print every name
with these little plastic letters. We thought that was
stupid, because we had a computer. So one of my colleagues wrote a
program in which we simply typed in our names, pressed a button
and the credits were done. The normal costs of the credits
were around 300 Mark for one single show. Ours was almost for free.
So I transferred some money into the bank account of
my colleague for the creation of the program. I paid him around 200 Mark.
Soon afterwards I got a call from the royalty and
licensing division: ”What did you do? We only have two channels,
the first and the third. Why did he write this program? Why
did you pay for that?” and so on. They just didn’t know anything.
We continued like that until episode 400, which also
was the last one. 400 episodes of one show is a lot if you are
doing them on a regular basis. Interviewer: That must have been weird,
that they were so backward, even at a TV station, with the technology and the
computers which were already available? Back: Not only did the WDR
have trouble with the digitalization, also the
German government did. As a university student I
was kind of fire fighter who was employed during summer break.
I worked for “Kaiser Aluminum” in Koblenz.
They made aluminum profiles. You had
to cut them into pieces of 50 x 50 centimeters.
And I had to drive down to France to a factory
that also made aluminum profiles. The changeover
to digital technology had happened there shortly
before I arrived. They called us and said they
weren’t able to work anymore because they had
some broken machinery. So I went there, first
with an airplane to Paris and from Paris with a
rental car to the factory in the countryside. I
noticed that they had typed in “0,0” and the cutting
machine always cuts at the same spot, simply
at “0,0” (laughs). They weren’t able to translate
what they want, I don’t know maybe 60 or 70
centimeters depends on how big the window was
supposed to be, into the “digital language”. They
weren’t able to understand that. That was the big
problem of the changeover to digital technology.
That’s why Jean Pütz and I did over 12 educational
episodes on digital technology. That was so
weird to say, the subject just passed over so many
people without them understanding. Digitization
progressed very slowly. People just kept
viewing the computer as something you needed if
you wore a white coat and worked in an IBM facility.
And some normal guy back home in his living
room saying: “I have a computer”. Well he was
just nuts to those people. Interviewer: Exactly, and some
high-level guy from IBM once said that there is demand for maybe
only three computers in the world. Back: There even was one
who said we only need one computer. We don’t need more than that.
He was from “Digital Electric”. You
also couldn’t imagine that computers would one day be a
vital part of all our lives. Interviewer: But you were a kind of visionary, right? Back: I don’t know if we were visionaries.
We were university students and we were at the college in Aachen. I didn’t take
a single computer class there though. On the weekends we spent time at the
computer center and played “moon landing”. Back then “moon landing” was played with
X’s because there were no graphics yet. Interviewer: Yes, there was only text. Back: And as soon as you landed
it said: “You landed 250 meters under the surface of the
moon.” The landing wasn’t very good but we had a lot of fun. It
was so primitive you probably couldn’t believe that almost
grown men had fun playing it. Interviewer: That’s also how Tetris was created too, right? Back: Yes, Tetris, yes. Interviewer: To test
computer hardware in Russia. And the formulas were
created with text, right? Back: That’s right. I only learned
about computers in the first place out of laziness. I didn’t
take any computing classes, since they weren’t mandatory.
They were voluntary so you didn’t had to take them. One day I
came by a friend’s house and he had one of those computers, a TRS80.
On the screen was written: “Hello Wolfgang. I am greeting
you.” This was a continuous loop. So I asked him how he did it.
That’s when I got hooked. I wanted one of those computers too.
For approximately half a year I lived in a different world.
I realized that I hadn’t learned a lot in college.
I wanted to make a round clock but I needed to use Sinus and
Co-Sinus and I realized that I didn’t really understand it.
So I started to repeat all the arithmetic stuff and learned to
see Sinus and Co-Sinus from a different perspective. I could
still do it today. I’m happy I thought in a different way
during those six months. But we didn’t get ahead, did we? We are
still at the beginning, right? Interviewer: Yes, we are
still at the beginning of your story. You’ve
experienced a lot. Back: Yes, and it was great. It
continued when the computers finally arrived for real. There has been
a new computer almost every week. For example one was called
“Colour Genie” which was really good with colors. There have been
a lot of attempts to include the people. The winner of that
competition was Commodore and Atari came close in second place. Atari
soon developed into a music computer. The VZ64 from Commodore
was a phenomenon. You could see it almost everywhere. Soon
there were these small computer fairs. There was one in Dortmund
where you could buy computers from Vobis and some of them were
even broken. In the back of the fair was a guy who fixed all the
broken computers. So people would leave the fair with a newly fixed
C64 and I felt almost like I was at an African bazaar because
people were carrying their computers or printers in a box on top of
their heads out of the building. It was a very crazy world and
we were right at the center of it. We liked it and also did our
part for it to stay that way. Interviewer: I was just about to say that. Back: We met so many people, who
where already way ahead of us. They did these special things with
the computers like programming a billing system. They were the
ones becoming professional programmers. To be able to access
the knowledge that was out there, there were people programming
private programs, like for example text programs. They
received reclamations and called the person and said: ”Could you
please give me a copy of the software which is supposedly
broken?” And then they went to the printer and made a copy of the disk.
Ok, so much for the knowledge of the people who had
to deal with the computers, but it was far from any type of real
knowledge since they hadn’t learned anything about it in school.
You couldn’t even blame those people, because everyone had
to kind of collect information from all kinds of sources. And
we were part of these sources where you could get information.
It took quite some time until there was a basic knowledge of
these things in the society. Interviewer: Yes, and a
lot of accomplishments in these areas were
for the sake of people, who did it as their hobby.
For example the first home-flight
simulator “Flight Simulator” and “Flight Simulator 2”.
They were released for Apple 2
first and later also for the C64. It originated
from its programmer’s work, Bruce Artwick,
as a university lecturer about aerodynamics. People were so
interested in it that he had the idea of using a home computer to turn it into a
software product. And then a lot of people learned to code. Back then it was a matter
of course that if people wanted to use computers in a useful
way, they would learn something like assembler
or some such things. Back: Yes, and there were the
robotics specialists too. One of our best known episodes was the one about
robotics when we fried the eggs. Interviewer: Oh yes,
I have seen that. That was funny. Back: Yes, and at first we
created a control system with LDRs on the screen. We wanted
to show that you could also use the monitor for control
systems of 8-bit programs. We also used that once to print something.
It took forever but that didn’t matter. We put
up LDRs on the front of the screen, which each represented one bit.
We would pick up one bit from the front
and reroute it to the cable and then we had a real 8-bit
connection, which we used to control the robot. The robot
then threw eggs into the pan, actually the whole procedure
was kind of harsh, and we were standing by and
laughing super hard. In the end the robot took a barrel of
salt and poured the salt over the eggs and eventually the
whole barrel dropped into the pan. We were crazy. We’ve
had so much fun, and having fun is what brought us forward.
It needed to be fun and it was. Otherwise we wouldn’t
have done it for so long. Interviewer: But your colleagues
sometimes thought you were a little bit crazy too, right? For example there
is an extract of “im Brennpunkt”, in which you are giving a presentation
with acoustic couplers. The subject was “Hacking” and Hans-Jürgen, the
host, sounded a little derogatory. Back: Hans-Jürgen Rosenbauer, I believe. Interviewer: Exactly. Back: Yeah, wee he
was my boss and has never been a friend of ours. Interviewer: Yes, you
could notice that by the words he used
in his introduction. Back: He didn’t know anything but we had
to live with that. I think I am allowed to say this now and I don’t believe that he is
a big fan of computers these days either. Interviewer: He isn’t that
much older than you, is he? You guys are more or less in
the same generation, right? Back: Yes, but I did something similar
in this new show I’m doing with Heinz Schmitz. We used acoustic couplers again.
I still have one I bought in England and it’s a crazy device which no one has
seen who hasn’t watched the “Computerclub”. We talked for 10 minutes about the
way things were back in the days. Interviewer: About the BTX thing, right? Back: BTX was much later. I think
around 1983. We were already pretty active back then and soon we completely
switched to BTX. It actually wasn’t that easy because you needed
a DBT-03. That was the connection to WTX and that was introduced in
1983 in whole Germany, but we were allowed to participate in the test
phase three years earlier. It was created for people who didn’t understand
anything back then, and probably don’t understand anything today either.
They wouldn’t understand it if I said: 1200 Baud and 75. What is that?
What are you talking about? Interview: Actually I still know what it is. Back: 1200/75, we were
complaining right away and said that 75 is when we’d
leave it which meant we didn’t have anything to say.
And 1200 is what comes in, so they
didn’t want to know what we had to say. Well, we
discussed the matter on the telephone. They still
had those back then. That cost around 18
Pfennig for 20 minutes, I guess. It was pretty good.
People from Berlin worked for weeks with
just one single unit of BTX, which actually
worked pretty well. The downside of BTX was that
it was initiated by the government. It was a
federal communication system. This meant that
there was a standard, which always stayed the
same while the computers developed new processors
and developed faster and faster. For example,
they went up from CGA to VGA and SVGA while the
BTX stayed at the federal level and couldn’t keep
up with the computers. BTX was the predecessor
of the internet. You could do a lot of things
with it but people didn’t use it that much.
Apple had for years only a black screen, which
said Apple and nothing else, because nobody
was bold enough to get started with screen text.
That was new, except for the porn websites,
they figured out pretty fast how to make good
money because everything was new and interesting.
We have so much spam these days, I only
want to read about 10 percent of the emails I receive.
Back then there was no spam because the
screen text page, the message, each cost 10 Pfennig.
This could be a way to deal with this
problem we have today. Interviewer: I’ve heard that before. Back: This would have never
happened with these kinds of numbers. I’d think twice
about sending one million emails for 10 Pfennig per email.
Back then it really was like mail. It was also
cheaper than the postage. Interviewer: A lot of
people didn’t even know that email already existed
before the internet. Back: Yes, I have been sending
emails since the 80s. This was all done via the “Arpanet”.
It was created around 1957. This was when people were
afraid of the Russians and that they could be able to build
missiles that could reach the US. So, people said that it
wasn’t good to have information in separate places like for
example some information would be in New York City and
some in Los Angeles. They should be retrievable if for
example a missile destroyed something in New York, they
should be able to put the information together again.
That was the big idea. A purely military idea which lead to the
creation of the Arpanet, which then, through IBM, eventually
became a student network. We used that too. The way to
address people was not like [email protected]…de or something,
it was like 15 367 98 72 or something similar. So, it
was a military and student network in the early 80s and
became mainstream in the 90s. Interviewer: I have
to admit, the first time I heard about it
was probably in 1995. Back: Yes, but back in the 80s it was
an academic and scientific thing to be able to communicate with someone
else in that way. It was very complicated, not like we know it today.
And then, I think it was around 1994 or 1995, I was one of the few people
who realized that there was an audio transmission from the US to Europe.
This was president Clinton because he had an affair with Ms. Lewinsky and
he has been interrogated by a court using the internet, think about that.
He was asked: “How did you greet Ms. Lewinsky? Did you shake her hand
and say “Hello” or did you kiss Ms. Lewinsky on the cheek? How did you
greet her?” I thought I was crazy. The American president interrogated like that?
That was worse than Trump these days. This audio transmission went
all around the world. Thank god not many people listened to this. It really
was kind of weird. The WDR had an internet access point on the other
side of the Rhine and there were maybe three people in the whole WDR station
who cared about it. We were also the first ones to have a mailbox.
Mailbox was the predecessor of private conversations without the internet.
It worked just by using a telephone. Interviewer: The so-called BPS, right? Back: Yes, and we had one of the
first communicating computers the so called KOMCOM. This
computer had in total about 19 million calls which is
nothing compared to today. We had only two telephone numbers.
So, you could enter it and chat with someone else
only using the keyboard. Sometimes I still think of the
things that happened during that time. You could open one
box and someone copied an article from the “Zeit” magazine
about software theft into the KOMCOM and the others could read it.
Then I received a letter with a bill from the
author of the article who was a lawyer. He noticed that
the article was in our KOMCOM and used an acoustic coupler
to hack our computer. It took him 45 minutes to write
that article which was about the length of one broadcasting
of the WDR in his opinion. So, he used the remuneration
framework for audio transmissions of the WDR and discovered
that it cost 1500 Mark. Interviewer: So a type of cease and desist letter? Back: Yes, and because it took him
45 minutes to write the article, it was the equivalent of a broadcast
of the WDR and cost 1500 Mark. I didn’t want to pay the bill myself
so I went to our legal adviser and he asked me: ”What did you do? How
can he be billing us for this? What did you send him?” And I said
that I didn’t send him anything and that he hacked our computer to get it.
He said that he didn’t think that was possible so we agreed
on a meeting and he came into my office and wanted to know how the
mailbox worked. He even brought the data protection officer of the WDR
with him. So, I told him I would show him now how it all works: I will
go to the other side of the Rhine into one of these mailboxes and I
am going to login with my keyboard and we will see if someone is there.
So, I went there and found two people arguing. One of them said
that it was a stolen program but I didn’t know which one it was. So,
our legal adviser told me: “Mr. Back, something like that, people
arguing, is not supposed to be on a screen of the WDR. He didn’t even
get that I’d been somewhere else. Interviewer: That was an interesting time, wasn’t it? Back: Yes, and he didn’t get it and
then I received a letter saying that I am supposed to always be there
when this mailbox was running. Interviewer: Which is pretty unrealistic. Back: Yes, it was supposed
to be the opposite of that. It was supposed
to run at night. They just didn’t get it. Then I
received another letter saying that I always
have to remove the disk when I am leaving the office.
That was an 8204 disk. The best thing though,
came from my office equipment dealer. He
brought me brochures for safes. I was supposed to choose one. Interviewer: To lock up the disk? Back: To lock up the disk, yes. Interviewer: That’s crazy. Back: That’s something not
a lot of people know, just so you have a little
bit of the background. I continued to use the
safe throughout my whole career at the WDR but it
never contained a disk. It always had two bottles
of champagne though. This was around 1983/1984.
The legal adviser was one of the most high-ranking
executives of the WDR. He didn’t know anything,
and neither did the data protection officer.
Then they thought I needed a safe. It was actually a
disaster what happened back then. Since we had
BTX we used the mailbox less and less even though
it kept running for a long time. The mailbox
processed about 19 million calls and we always
wondered why people from Denmark would be in there.
It was still kind of expensive back then. Flat
rates didn’t exist yet. Interviewer: Or call-by-call… Back: Yes, and we didn’t think that
there would be flat rates that fast for the internet here in Germany.
We knew about them from the US with $15 a month or so. Here
the rate for one minute of BTX usage was 1.80 Mark or so. BTX was
often used for online banking. Interviewer: Yes,
but weren’t there a lot of problems
because of safety? Back: Well it has never been
as safe as it was back then. What happened was the
“Chaoscomputerclub” which started a campaign. We knew the members
of the “Chaoscomputerclub” and we knew that there
was a lot of lying going on. I know that the access
to the “Hamburger Sparkasse” was gained through looking
over a woman’s shoulder while she was typing in her
bank information. You were not allowed to say that since
they committed a crime. Interviewer: You
mentioned that in a show you did with
Heinz Schmitz. Back: It really was a strong signal back
then, when they withdrew 200,000 Mark. They built a small automatic
machine and used the touches of the keyboard
to withdraw 9.99 Mark, the highest amount possible, with the
relay. If you did that long enough you would eventually get to 200,000 Mark. There
was always a lawyer and a notary present. You were not allowed to
say that they cheated to get this information.
Suddenly there was this number of the
“Hamburger Sparkasse” online. Well it is
all over now and it was good the way it was. People were warned
early on what was good for people to learn about. It is way worse
today than back then. Half a year ago was
this Telecom- hack. Afterwards they still advertised themselves
by saying they have the best network. I was surprised (laughs). The people learned
that if you pull the plug and plug it back in again, everything
would come back anyways. These are all things
that have to happen. These are learning effects and we had to
experience that too. They wanted to shut down our computer too.
We have been thinking as far as realizing it
but no one else would have realized it. And today we know that a
lot of people still don’t know anything. Receiving emails saying that it is time to
check your PayPal-account and please tell us your password by the way, these are all
things which are still relevant today. Interviewer: They
seem to work because otherwise no one would use them. Back: Yes, and the younger people are not
well trained about stuff like that. I was talking to one guy
and he said that his mobile phone did not
have a computer, only a battery. I only thought: “Dear Lord!”. You
could also fall into the trap of Phishing and all sorts of other issues.
The creativity of these hackers
isn’t exhausted yet. Interviewer: What was your top
experience, your top guest, of the WDR- Computerclub? Aside from the
robot annihilating the eggs. Back: The best one? Interviewer: Yes, a few Best Offs. Back: I would probably
have to name them all because we had a lot
of great people on our show. For example we had
Theo Lieven from Vobis. He also participated
in our last episode of the “Computerclub” and he
has always been against Microsoft’s policy: If
you don’t cooperate you will have to pay.
For some time he even sold only OS2 and no
Windows products anymore. Interviewer: Yes, I have seen that too. Back: Eventually he had to turn back to
Windows and had a sales volume of over four billion Euros a year. I am still in touch
with him nowadays. After that he sold the company to “Kaufhof” and
“Metro” and others. I knew him back then
because he was also the one selling calculators to university
students. After he sold it, he went to the university of St. Gallen
and earned his PhD in economics. He is a
professor in St. Gallen now. He’ll be on our next show too. He was
a person who had a lot to say and I got along with him very well too.
When he invited people over to dinner
he had to take a phone call almost every ten minutes.
I think the telephone was
operated by the telecom. Interviewer: That was a pretty big and heavy thing, wasn’t it? Back: Yes, he called and ordered
10,000 hard drives from a factory in Taiwan, asked for
the price which was about 30 Mark each I remember, and
said: “10,000” and we continued having dinner. That was
probably a pretty stressful job but he did it well. I
also did an interview with Benoit Mandelbrot in Bad Neuenahr.
There have been a lot of Atari- developers and I
asked one of them in 1980: “What will things look like
in 2010?” And he replied that in 2010 I would probably
wear special glasses, which will notice how I’m feeling
and for example tell me that I need a vacation and then the
glasses will show me pictures of Bangkok or somewhere
else I could go on vacation and show me in what different
ways I will be able to relax there. So I asked him
why I still would want to go to Bangkok if my glasses already
basically took me there. He agreed. We also had the
Atari boss on our show. Interviewer: Jack Tramiel? Back: Yes, but I didn’t like him that much.
I think it is normal to have favorites. The “Computerclub” was a
separate division within the WDR and we were often seen
as the blithering idiots but that changed because
people started appreciating it because the computer
became more and more important. You still
had to do online banking but the Internet changed
a lot of things. BTX has been for years
the access to online banking. Back then it
wasn’t like today where you don’t know where the
cables are located, there was only one network
and that was BTX. You could trust that a lot
of things were better back in the day because
today you just don’t know who is listening.
All that has happened. And today we still love
our computers so much. Interviewer: All of it
progresses in the direction you said it would as a young man, didn’t it?
That the computer would become this important
thing and that all of that would become natural that
has been somewhat magical. Back: Yes, it was pretty obvious to me.
During my younger years, I had a tape recorder, which I used to record Elvis
Presley. My father always said:” Stop it!” (laughs). We were two
different generations. My father also
could never really accept computers fully. He used to say
I would lose myself in those things. Interviewer: That did not come true. Back: I have to admit that, my father
was already a preschool teacher at the age of 18. He skipped one
year of the German Gymnasium and taught math in the lower grades because
the teacher was sick. He played eight instruments, was the leader
of a choir, founded a violin club, and so on. He was so involved he
didn’t have time for computers. Those meant nothing to him. But he thought
that me making this show was a good thing. My mother didn’t get
anything of that like most people of that time. There was only a difference
of one generation between us. Interviewer: The actual home computers came around 1977… Back: Yes, and we are not done yet. In
my current shows I always kind of say that we have done things, in the 80s and
90s, which were way ahead of our time. Interviewer: What I would be interested in
is to know if you also kind of looked at others and what they were doing?
Like for example Christian Spanik
with “neues” on 3sat? Back: No, we didn’t care. We wanted
him to look at us for inspiration (laughs). That may sound a
little weird and arrogant, but everyone had his own problems.
When we were at the CeBIT fair and saw him, we shook hands and stuff,
but we were competitors, yes. Interviewer: It was about viewer numbers, wasn’t it?
Who had more views… Back: Well for a long time we couldn’t
even talk about viewer numbers (laughs). Those went up pretty fast because the
people at the WDR realized that it didn’t matter at what time they would air the
“Computerclub”, at 10 o’clock at night or at 9 o’clock in the morning, there were
always people watching it. Most normal TV shows can’t say that because it highly
depends on the time they would be aired. I was shocked to read that the WDR is second
to last place in the local TV channel ranking. There are older people sending
emails to the WDR saying that they should again do something like “8. Sinn”, you
don’t know that anymore, don’t you? Interviewer: Yes, the “8.
Sinn” rings a bell. Wasn’t it called “7.
Sinn”? Back: Yes, that was the thing
about traffic and stuff. “8. Sinn” is supposed to be
something to show people how to handle computers so
they wouldn’t fall in one of the many traps out there.
They are right. A lot of people want to do online
banking these days, but don’t know how to, because
nobody shows them. What is important, what stuff do they
already know, and what did they forget? There should
really be a show like that. Interviewer: Yes, this reminds
me of my interview with Stewart Cheifet, the creator
of the computer chronicles. Back: Yes, and there are
also the people who say they don’t want to work
with Windows 10 and you could tell them to
use Windows XP, which doesn’t get any support
anymore and you can’t use the internet because there
are no virus scanners available for that. Hello?
As it happens I have reorganized some of
my old discs today and I found an old Windows
3.11 operating system. Interviewer: My first operating system was Windows
3.1 from 1992. Back: Yes, 3.11 was already available with network adaption. Interviewer: Exactly, with Windows for work groups. Back: Yes, and nowadays you
couldn’t simply use the internet with those things, you
wouldn’t know what’s going on. Interviewer: If I recall
it right, you announced on your website that
you retired in 2007. Back: One year earlier, 2006. Interviewer: But you are
still continuing to work on YouTube. Is it still an
affair of the heart for you to inform and educate
people on what is going on in the IT sector and
with computers these days? Back: Yes. I have been thinking
that a lot of the stuff we did in the 80s and 90s has vanished.
For example, facial recognition software in 1995.
The topic of facial recognition has a whole different
importance since 2017. Back then nobody cared. I
just did an interview with a Prof. von der Malzburg whom
I already interviewed in 1995 on the topic of facial recognition.
I wanted to know how much has changed back then?
A lot has changed. Von der Malzburg also wrote the
software and the foundation of the security facial
recognition cameras at the airports. The ones that help
catching criminals. These are usages no one would
have thought of back then. He has been the number one
in the facial recognition sector for a long time but has
been surpassed and is now second place. He wants to
regain first place through surrounding himself with
young people and developing a new way of thinking so that
he can have a new, unique perspective on the topic,
so he can improve it. And these are the type of messages
I like to help to get out into the world. He doesn’t
want a computer that can surpass his brain but it
can be a help for a lot of things that weren’t possible before.
Google had the same problems with their self-driving car.
These are the same structures. In 1995 I
drove to Aachen with von der Malzburg and he said that
he wants to have a software that could recognize a hat.
That’s weird, isn’t it? And in my next show I am welcoming
him and asking him: “I am wearing a hat. Do you
recognize it?” He says that he could recognize it and that
on the one hand the problem is solved by now but on the
other hand it still isn’t solved yet. I asked him the
right question to prove that: ”What about a thimble
(“Fingerhut” in German)?” Interviewer: AI
cannot differentiate between a thimble and
a real hat, right? Back: That’s exactly the problem.
The computer still has to learn
what a thimble is. Interviewer: To think outside the box. Back: But you would also
have to tell a child. A child wouldn’t know
what a thimble is unless you told him. It has
never used a thimble. Only if you tell the
child what a thimble is, it’s able to know it.
The same applies to computers. The question is
if the computer becomes more efficient than the
human brain or if the brain stays more efficient
than the computer. Interviewer: The computer has
a lot of disadvantages, for example it doesn’t have any
emotions or no desire to discover something new or
to improve something. These are all human characteristics
a computer doesn’t have. Back: Yes, but a computer also has the
ability to learn new things. It learns new things through data like pictures and
things and if you show him a thimble, he would save it and know it from now
on, as the child does. All these AI and neuronal sciences I find highly
interesting. The whole self-driving car thing from Google, there is so much going
on and I know of one guy who worked there. He studied in Bonn and I know
that he knows the “Computerclub”. I want to have an interview sometime with
Google America. I hosted a show in 1985 called “Autopia” and in this show
we presented how the future would look like. One of our guests was the head of
the scientific division of VW. That was around 1985 there was no GPS yet. He
showed me a card with a barcode written on it. He said that in ten years I would
plug this card into my car and drive to him. We were almost talking reality
when we talked about driving in a convoy. You would get in, read the papers,
sleep a bit and the next morning you would wake up in Munich. We don’t have
convoy driving these days even though it would be mostly possible. Google
just had this car accident resulting in the death of a person, which hit them
hard and was a big problem for them. Interviewer It is an ethical question. Who
should be saved, the people inside the car or outside? It is really hard to
find the right answer for that question. Back: You could also put the
question into perspective and say a computer would cause
less accidents than a drunk driver. You could definitely
argue that it shouldn’t be too cold because of the
distance sensors of the cars since the cold would cause
problems for them. It is possible that a self-driving car could
hit your car from behind if the sensors don’t work, but
a drunk driver would also hit your car from behind.
That’s the case and I think that there will be a lot of
problems regarding the adaption. There is also the question
if there is an accident, who is going to pay? The
company, who created the car or its owner? Nowadays, the
security systems say that the owner of the car, who is not
actively driving the car, is the one who has to pay.
So the question remains: Do you want to buy a car, and if
something is wrong with it or does not work that you
are the one who has to pay? Interviewer: Are there
any lines that you would say computers and technology
should not cross? Back: I don’t know. I would
definitely get into one of those convoys I mentioned before and
I would say: “Ok my computer won’t fall asleep.”, because,
actually, you don’t have to do as much as a person driving in
one of those convoys. You don’t even have to check the distance
between your car and the others and have to make sure you don’t
hit some other cars because you have a radar, which does this for you.
It is all possible technology wise and some trucks
already use this system. Interviewer: So you
completely trust the technology and
its abilities? Back: Is it harder to understand
trusting the technology than trusting a human person, who can
just easily be wrong? I don’t have to think about that for much longer.
I drive a Smart because I was driving a Porsche for
years and it was just nonsense to drive a machine, whose motor
costs 40 000 Euros and the transmission costs another 25 000 Euros.
So after someone stole my Porsche I switched to a Smart.
I am very happy and satisfied with it because I can do everything
I have to do with this car. Interviewer: Electric or Hybrid? Back: That is not yet decided. I
have had an electric Smart for about a week and I am thinking
about buying a second Smart with a gasoline tank. With the
electric Smart I wouldn’t even be able to get to the Lorelei and back.
And you also have to think about the fact that there
is also an AC and there is no motor to power it. You also
don’t know how much energy the windscreen wiper needs. There is
a campaign in the spring that if you buy an electric Smart, you
will receive 4000 Euros. The Smart costs 21 000 Euros minus
the 4000 Euros you would be left with your own car battery. And
there will be a lot of people saying that they won’t switch
their batteries on the road since they have paid 4000 Euros for it.
I give my completely new one and get a super old one
and some stranger gets my new battery? That will cause problems.
It is not like these electric batteries run without energy or
have been made without energy and everything is fine now. That
energy has to be produced too. Interviewer: Which is also a form of pollution. Back: Yes. And in the Netherlands
there is also something weird happening at the moment.
They have so many bicycles, so they sell electricity
to Norway who then uses that electricity to power
their oil drilling machines. Interviewer What I think
would be interesting to know is that, you as the WDR- “Computerclub” and also
the other shows you were doing, were more oriented
towards the users of the products. Have you been following up
on this? You said it in the beginning of the interview, the moon landing, and what
has happened in the area of video gaming? Back: I have never been interested in video games. Interviewer: So that means
that the moon landing game was the only time you came
in touch with video games? Back: Back then there hasn’t been any
competition for this game, since you needed a mainframe computer to play it.
We used to play it in Aachen and there hasn’t even been some type of
graphic design or so, there were only X’s. We had a lot of fun, but I never
played shooters or anything like that. Even with Ping Pong I was done pretty
fast, which was also at the beginning of the video gaming era. It became
boring after a while and also games like the settlers or something like that
wasn’t interesting me. I also didn’t want to be interested in this stuff.
What was I supposed to do with that? Interviewer: – Well I mean nowadays
the topic is becoming more and more important because of the
virtual reality stuff, right? Back: This also doesn’t
interest me since I have been working very early on in the
virtual reality studios, in the GMD. We have also filmed
our first episode in this studio, even one week before the ZDF did.
It isn’t very natural to have help as a show
host and it tells you where you are allowed to step, and
where you are not allowed to step. It’s weird being alone
in the studio and trying to tell people something
but you don’t know if you are doing it right. Am I
allowed to go up these stairs? Are this even real stairs?
In our first episode I walked up the stairs and it
worked (laughs). You can also see that on YouTube. The
first virtual TV- show in a virtual studio. (Music starts)
“What you are seeing here is a virtual scenery. Welcome
everyone to this show. We have already announced
it in the episode of the “Computerclub” that we want to
make a follow up episode where we react to the inputs that
came through the internet. What happened? And most
importantly, what will happen in this show? It is probably
the first time that a live broadcast is being broadcasted
from a virtual studio, where so much complexity, so much
technical complexity comes together. Maybe we don’t want
to show you why a lot went wrong in here, but Wolfgang
Rudolf awaits us outside, he is going to do the real
part here in this episode because we didn’t want to
do this episode completely without a realistic part.”
Back: And we actually received a message from Australia as
a reaction to this show we did in this virtual studio.
We went to the CeBIT and also made a follow up episode
on this one and we had a guy who was driving a truck in Australia.
We thought it was crazy that someone in
Australia could see any of what we did, using the Internet.
It was fascinating. Interviewer: But that wasn’t the same
episode you had that live broadcasting on the internet, right? Was is
that episode or a different one? Back: That’s the episode, when
you look for it on YouTube, I am sitting there with a brown jacket
somewhere on a background. Interviewer: Like to a green screen?
You’d use it today to project an image or background
or environment around you. Back: Yes, but that’s only
the beginning. You could find entire virtual
sceneries in those virtual studios. You used it to
work with tricks. Sometimes you could blank something
out or change colors and then they would switch to
camera 2 or some other camera. To do stuff like that you
needed a big computer which has always been a problem.
We used the one from the GMD, “Gesellschaft
für Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung”, which
was a big think tank where people were able to try
a lot of things without it having an immediate impact
on their revenue. That was great. And about virtual
scenes: the virtual stays virtual in my opinion.
I have 3D-glasses for my TV, which I have never
used, and I am also not interested in using them.
Maybe I am too old for this or maybe I just know too
much about its origins. Interviewer: You shouldn’t forget
that there has been an attempt with virtual reality stuff in 1994, that
wasn’t successful either, right? Back: Yes exactly. And
a stereo television with glasses will never
be successful. I have experienced it, there has
been a hype regarding the magazine “Hörzu”,
which had glasses in it you could cut out
because there was a show coming to the stereo. So
they were all sitting there with their glasses but nothing ever
happened with that. It took care of itself. Interviewer: You are
talking about these red and blue glasses you
could cut out yourself? Back: Yes, the people
didn’t want that anymore. I believe that humans want
to stay humans and don’t want to walk around with
glasses in their faces like the guy I interviewed from Atari.
He said: “Actually you are right.
If my glasses would tell me that I should go on
vacation in Bangkok and they would show me all
these great pictures of Bangkok, I wouldn’t need
to go there anymore.” Interviewer Well,
Google tried something similar with the
Google Glasses, right? Back: Yes, these kinds of
experiments are being done a lot. But are we all going
to walk around with that? Interviewer: I can’t imagine that happening either. Back: I think it’s all great science, but
I don’t think we want to walk around like that. I want to take off my glasses
sometimes too, even though I just got two new lenses. One of my colleagues said to
me, “Just because you have two new lenses doesn’t mean you can see through me.”
(laughs) I have the thing right next to me where we noted what we actually wanted to
talk about: Martin Cooper, the inventor of the mobile phone.
He thinks that Smartphones are too
complicated for the older generations and there it is again. What’s
your hint on this? Since that young guy you mentioned earlier says that smartphones
don’t have a computer, only a battery? Interviewer: I have
to admit that in our family we had a special
case because I came to computers through my
grandfather who was really into computers and technology.
That’s why I never understood
people who were saying that the older generation,
people 70 and up, were having trouble
with the modern technology. We didn’t
have that in our family. Back: Yes, I also still
have an alarm system which I handle myself and I also
still code it myself. Interviewer: How did you feel
about the publicity you had through the “Computerclub” and
other projects? I mean there was probably some criticism too, right?
For example, there is a parody of the “Computerclub”
on YouTube by Oliver Kalkhofe. Back: Yeah, he should just do whatever he wants to do. Interviewer: So, you didn’t/ don’t care? Back: No and I have also never seen it.
But it’s good for publicity. At least
they are talking about it. The worst thing would
be if you don’t have anything to say and they
just don’t care about you. Interviewer: So you
are living by the saying, “No press is bad press”? Back: Exactly, it’s true. But the
stuff people said didn’t even get through to me. Oliver Kalkhofe has
problems of his own to live with. Interviewer: Yes, but I
am still wondering if you weren’t a little bit mad
sometimes if there is any criticism or something like that.
Or do you just have a thick skin and
you don’t care anymore? Back: You have to. A while ago I was
criticized for leaving the show. I have also heard people saying things about
it who don’t even know what happened. Interviewer I mean it’s your right
to keep it as a secret. Stewart Cheifet, the author of the “Computer
Chronicles,” once told me in an interview that he made a mistake of
searching for himself on google. The result was: Stewart Cheifet is
the rudest person in the world. Back: Yes, and none of us are angels.
Most of us are also grandchildren (laughs). Well,
I am also a little Kölner. Interviewer: So
have you prepared anything for the
carnival (laughs). Back: Yes, Weiberfassnacht. Interviewer: So,
what are your plans for the next couple of years? Back: To survive them (laughs). Interviewer: Well, I mean with a little
luck you can get pretty old these days. I mean you are still doing
shows even if you’re on YouTube now. Back: Yes, and that’s a lot of work too.
I mean I am not doing everything with anyone anymore, so you are lucky. We
also have a lot of fun. I just wanted to show people the results of what we did
in the 80s and 90s, for example facial recognition technology. The Suprenum
was in 1992, have you heard of that? Interviewer: Suprenum, doesn’t ring a bell, no. Back: Suprenum was the fastest
computer in the world. Built in St. Augustin with the GMD. By a guy named
Ulrich Trottenberg. This guy was pretty young back then and has aged
now too and in spring I was going to interview him too. That thing was
a parallel computer and it failed because of the programming of the
parallel part. Humans can’t do the parallel part very well. All the
different directions, back and forth and stuff. And they calculate and
put things together and stuff until we have a great result. That happens
faster than anyone else can do it. That project failed but I still
have one of the four basic circuit boards. There are four basic circuit
boards and one is at the museum, one is with me and another one is
with the inventor. There hasn’t been any progress and also no second
Suprenum. And that’s the problem I’m going to have with Mr. Trottenberg.
I am going to ask him: What happened with the Suprenum? Why didn’t
it continue? The Chinese just built the new fastest computer in the world
a day ago or so. And he’s going to argue that they had failed with
programming the parallel part. Interviewer: Well sometimes as an
interviewer you have to ask the hard questions too. Not all the questions are
questions that the interviewee likes. Back: That’s what I am interested in.
I’m not interested in a new network
card with golden buttons or something. I am
interested in the background stories and the people
I worked with back then. They became older,
I have become older and I want to talk to them
and ask them what could have happened and what
could have been. And we can be honest about what
exactly has happened. Interviewer: A lot of the
pioneers I am interviewing are 80 years or older
and still very active. Back: Yes, and that’s good. Interviewer: Martin
Cooper for example. He will turn 89 on December
26th this year. Back: You stay active, yes. I
wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Should I paint our apartment? Sometimes
I even do stuff like that myself. Interviewer: That’s what
a lot of them said: What else should I be doing?
My whole life I haven’t done anything but some
technological and electronical pioneer work. Why
shouldn’t I keep going? Back: We also created a new form of art in 1986. The Roboart. Interviewer: Roboart? Back: Yes, 1986. You can even find it on the internet. Interviewer: Robots painting pictures? Back: Yes, kind of. We did a
little more than that back then. In 1986 we measured brain waves.
Through 36 different operational amplifiers we were
able to measure alpha waves. Alpha waves are there when you
relax, or when you are under stress, I’m not sure, and are
not there when you are under stress. These are two factors
you can measure. We measured them and fed them to a computer
and gave the computer several possibilities to choose from.
For example, a flower or a flash, which was the opposite of that.
For example, if you think about a plane crash you
are on the side of the flash. The computer than reached for
the symbol the alpha waves told him. We had a canvas and a
computer which was located in the middle of the room and which
was also able to move around. The computer could then
choose between four different colors and then it painted, for
example the plane crash in the form of a flash. It wasn’t
easy with the computer located in the middle and only having a single arm.
You would have to head for the canvas from a
different angle if you wanted the computer to paint in the upper
left than if you for example wanted him to paint in the middle.
You would have to use very complex mathematics to
make this work and we did it as hobbyists. We presented it at
the fair in cologne in 1986. I still have four paintings
of this Roboart. We had the idea that someone could be
anywhere in the world and record his alpha waves and write them
down in a data file and send it to the robot who would paint
the painting. All of this even reached to “Dokument” in Kassel.
I wanted to fixate the Roboart on us because it was
going to be big. Today, no one could go as far as we went back then.
I am very proud of how much we did, and I think
that was something you can look back on. We even had a
professor walk by and tell us, “This is crazy! This even
involves neurology.” And so on. Interviewer: Back then, have you ever
thought that you were the first in many of these things and also that
you have kind of a pioneer position? Back: Yes, we were pioneers.
For example, a colleague of mine, Mr. Rudolph, created
a way for blind people to detect whether the clothes
they were wearing were blue, red or yellow. They needed
to know if the shirt they selected was a white or a black one.
It was a little primitive with the audio version
because no one had ever done it before. At the fair
we let a robot run over a painting and determine the
colors and we would create an acoustic painting of the colors.
For example, so you could imagine if the painting was
one of a war with a lot of black in it or if it’s a
happier painting. If that was the case it could have
been red or yellow or so. We could say that all of these
were experiments and that would’ve been true. You could
hear it if it was a happy picture the robot was walking over.
I think we can be proud because we were little
inventors and developers. Interviewer: Well I’ve
seen that you’re still active. You recently
received an award. Back: I am also proud of that because this
is where big things happen in the world. I am talking about the 3D-stuff with the
printers and all. I, by myself don’t own a 3D- printer. I don’t have the time for
that anymore. I know someone who has a 3D-printer that costed 1.5 million Dollar.
He’s only printing with titanium. The titanium powder gets melted by the laser.
He does that for Boeing, for their engines. He prints the nozzles for the engines in
titanium with his 3D- printer. Before that you would make them with titanium
too, but you needed to build actual tools. Nowadays you make them with a 3D- printer
and you simply write a program for it. Interviewer: There are a lot of
things you use 3D- printers for nowadays. For example, you can
make tissue and face implants. Back: There are even 3D-
printers that can be used to build real organs
or implants, like heart valves or something like that.
Many dentists make their teeth the same way.
They just take a picture and then they
print it and the tooth is better than any technician
could have done it. It is all in the early stages
and I think that the whole 3D printing thing
will get into Mr. Minit. Interviewer: Key services and locksmiths. Back: Key services, shoes soles, smaller
repair work, replacement parts for the fridge, etc. Just sit down and wait
twenty minutes while it is printing it. Interviewer: This kind of sounds like the replicator
from Star Trek. Back: Yes, that’s not too far off.
This is going to be a logistical nightmare though. The streets
will be packed. You could go to Mr. Minit and they would print
it for you right there. You wouldn’t have to order something
in Munich or Hamburg anymore. The digital files will be
included pretty soon too. Back in the days they used wood in the
testing division of Ford. Not anymore. If something is a success
they will just take the data file to the production division.
It’s still at the beginning. Interviewer: What I think
would be interesting would be to know if
you think that things were better back in
the days or do you welcome the technological
progress with open arms and say that we don’t need things like
VHS anymore? Either way we’re in a kind of retro wave and all sorts of things from the
80s are in demand again like vinyl records. Back: Yes, okay but it wasn’t
better back in the days. You only say that if you want to
protect yourself from all the things that are changing around you.
Some people say the 80s were awesome and I
don’t want to have the 90s and 2010s because they were
too complicated. A lot of people feel that way. I’ve
always gotten through somehow otherwise the only thing I
would be able to do is to sell something in some shops. I
have never sold anything. I’ve also seen a lot things
before they became big, just like the 3D- printers now.
The 3D guys are great and have a totally new way of thinking.
We will live to see me pinning a flower to my
jacket that is blinking and that I will be able to wash
with the LEDs still attached to it. We’ll see all of this.
And having some type of device in my pocket that
I will be able to use to control the LEDs. You just
have to keep thinking ahead. Interviewer: What do you think about chips
or implants? It’s something that’s been talked about for a while whether or not you
will have a smartphone in the future or if you will have the
microphone and stuff under the skin in the form
of a chip or implant. There’ve been scientists who’ve implanted
themselves a RFID- chip under their skin. Back: This reminds me off the
“Computerclub”. There was this one guy in the studio, in the beginning
of the 80s, who had this small copper coil. He said that
you could hide it in your ear and that there would be billions
of contacts and addresses on there. So you would know that
this is this guy, this is this that one and so on. We started
with the facial recognition and we were really glad to see how
many criminals have been caught using the technology. This thing
would change a lot nowadays. Interviewer: Don’t you have any
second thoughts? About the right of privacy or the protection of
personal data? When everything is being surveilled? Do we want a
police state? Like in Great Britain for example, where there are cameras
everywhere. Do we want that? Back: Do we want that, or do we need that? Interviewer: That’s the question.
Is the world more secure through
surveilling everybody? Back: I am not sure if we
should allow something like the truck driving into the Christmas
market to happen again. Interviewer: On the Christmas market. Back: I knew that something like
that would happen. The next time it will be a tractor because there
will be barriers for trucks. I have seen these huge blocks of concrete.
When the attack happened in Nice I told my wife that
next time it would be a tractor that drives into a tent of people
singing Volksmusik. A truck wouldn’t get through anymore
because of these huge blocks of concrete. And when the tractor
doesn’t get through anymore, then there will be a car driving into the tent.
Cars can kill too. Interviewer: There is no guaranteed safety in this world. Back: No, there isn’t. There
will always be somebody who is going to be held responsible
for that stuff, but people cannot do more than
try to prevent these things from happening. It isn’t possible.
We have never been burdened like that. The computer
has done a lot. It took a lot of things out of the registers.
There are now cards in the registers anymore.
Not like back in the days. Well we have come
pretty far now, haven’t we? Interviewer: Yes, we have. Back: I could have shown
you something, for example the articles I
wrote when I was 14. Interviewer: I would love
to do a second interview with you and then you could
show me all of that. Back: Do you want to see it? Interviewer: Of course. Back: That was my ‘journalist’ age,
when I was 14 or 15 years old. I took the pictures, I developed them
and sent them to the newspaper. Interviewer: That would have been about 60 years ago. Back: Yes, wait a second.
(Mumbles something)… VFL Rochern and this was
at the “Loreleibühne”. Interviewer: Ah, very interesting. Back: The pictures are all self-made. Interviewer: You
should digitize all of this to preserve
it for posterity. Back: Yes, this is from 1957. All
these 16s were the amount of lines, which I counted because
each line was worth 10 Pfennig. Interviewer: That’s how much you earned per line, right? Back: Yes, and the picture was about
10 Mark. 22 lines here, 11 lines here, 7 lines here (laughs). That
was a lot of money back then. Interviewer: I can imagine, yes. Very pretty. Back: That was local journalism
and then I noticed that I could sell the pictures of the Loreley
to the “Bild” newspaper. Interviewer: The newspaper that no one reads. Back: No, the newspaper
which doesn’t have any journalists left. I got
300 Mark per picture. Interviewer: Wow, that probably was a small fortune back then. Back: Yes, and here’s my grandmother.
She turned 100 That’s when we had a
big family fight (laughs). Interviewer: Oh, okay. Back: I’ve gone through a lot. Interviewer: And you still have a lot in
front of you with all these plans you have. I’m very excited. I want to thank
you and we will stay in touch. Bye.

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