The next 25 years in tech
PCs may disappear from your desk by 2033. But with digital technology
showing up everywhere else-including inside your body-computing will
only get more personal. The future ain't what it used to be.
In the pre-PC era, futurists predicted huge changes in
transportation. By 2008 we would be flitting about in personal jetpacks
and taking vacations on the moon. But the communications revolution
spurred by personal computers and the Internet wasn't on anyone's radar.
Now the technology landscape is on the verge of changes that will
transport us to places few people have imagined. We know that computers
will be vastly more powerful, mobile, and connected. The question for
the next 25 years is whether we'll be able to tell where technology ends
and the rest of our life begins.
Technology will become firmly embedded in advanced devices that
deliver information and entertainment to our homes and our hip pockets,
in sensors that monitor our environment from within the walls and floors
of our homes, and in chips that deliver medicine and augment reality
inside our bodies.
This shiny, happy, future world will come at a cost, though: Think
security and privacy concerns. So let's hope that our jetpacks come with
seat belts, because it's going to be a wild ride.
The Incredible Disappearing PC - Whether you have a PC on your desk
in 10 to 15 years will be a matter of choice, not necessity.
If you do, it will be vastly more powerful than your current system,
thanks to advances in nanotechnology, says Doug Tougaw, an engineering
professor at Valparaiso University who is developing nanocomputers.
"We're getting closer to our goal of creating computers that are a
thousand times faster and smaller and use one-thousandth of the energy
of today's computers," Tougaw reports. "As processors get smaller,
they'll be embedded into more things. We'll also use standard-size
machines packed with hundreds of chips.
So we'll have very intelligent consumer products and unbelievably
powerful PCs." Computers using nanotechnology will debut in about five
years, he says.
Five to 10 years after that, silicon will reach a point at which
quantum mechanics won't allow chip pathways to get any smaller, so
electric-current-based PCs will give way to optical computers that
transmit streams of light instead of electrons, or perhaps to quantum
computers that rely on the strange physics of atomic particles to
deliver processing brawn.
"Starting around the year 2018, we'll have optical computers that
operate at the speed of light, sending thousands of message streams down
a single channel," says William Halal, professor emeritus at George
Washington University and author of "Technology's Promise: Expert
Knowledge on the Coming Transformation of Society," to be published in
Most of tomorrow's CPU muscle will go toward making the user
interface seamless and ubiquitous. Keyboards and mice may persist, but
they'll become secondary to voice and gesture.
Gesture-based interfaces are catching on fast. The Nintendo Wii's
gesture-based controllers are one example. And the iPhone's touch screen
responds differently to finger taps than to swipes; Apple rolled similar
technology into its MacBook Air's touch pad in January. GestureTek uses
the input from camera phones to deliver gesture control.
Once freed from the keyboard, you'll be able to talk or gesture to
your computer from virtually any display in your home. Or you may carry
your pocket-size computer with you and beam the image to a nanocomputer
embedded in the nearest wall-size screen.
Paper-thin displays are inching closer to reality, too. Late last
year, Sony released its $2,500, 11-inch XEL-1 organic light-emitting
diode (OLED) HDTVs; and at January's Consumer Electronics Show, the
company presented a prototype 27-inch OLED HDTV.
Meanwhile, what you see on screen will look a lot more like real life
than in present-day 3D virtual worlds, predicts Halal. "When you want to
buy a book, instead of going to Amazon's home page, you'll be greeted by
a virtual salesperson," Halal says.
"The avatar will find the book you're looking for and conduct the
transaction, just as you would with a real person." Michael Liebhold,
senior researcher at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.,
says your PC may project a holograph, so you can manipulate files and
objects with your hands.
Of course, you may not have a traditional computer at all. For many
people, the PC of the future will be a dumb terminal, with storage,
software, and processing power distributed across an Internet cloud.
Amazon, Dell, and IBM have introduced cloud services for businesses; and
Google and Zoho now serve up Web applications to consumers.
In years to come you'll enjoy ubiquitous Internet access, perhaps
using part of today's TV spectrum. Such access will deliver your
"desktop" from a portable device or Internet terminal.Instead of a user
name and password, you'll provide a fingerprint, voice, or retinal scan.
"Your identity becomes your access point to your files and
applications," says Patrick Tucker of the World Future Society, in
Bethesda, Md. "Your digital life will follow you around like a shadow."
Surrounded by Intelligence - We're entering the era of "ambient
intelligence," when everyday objects will contain technology that
broadcasts data about themselves and their environment, says Liebhold.
As you approach a dangerous intersection, sensors in your car will
detect it and reduce speed. GPS coordinates of places unsafe to walk at
night will be broadcast to mobile devices.
In Japan, location-based services from GeoVector let the Mapions
Pointing Application deliver information on businesses inside a building
at the point of a GPS-enabled camera phone. U.S. handsets with the
technology should appear by year's end.
In homes, floor sensors will detect empty rooms and automatically
lower the thermostat and turn off lights. Agilewaves, a firm started by
ex-NASA scientists, is working with builders to install sensors on
electrical switches, pipes, and gas valves.
Eventually they hope to offer neighbourhoods, subdivisions, or
municipalities a big-picture view of their carbon footprint.
Future homes will have "a dashboard that gives real-time performance
feedback," says Peter Sharer, CEO of Agilewaves. "Homes that have this
instrumentation are more likely to hook into their neighbours' homes. In
10 or 15 years, entire communities will be networked."
Our Computers, Ourselves - Ambient computing will extend from house
walls to body cells. Verichip makes a pea-size radio-frequency
identification (RFID) chip that can be injected under diabetes patients'
skin to monitor glucose without a blood sample.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland are exploring
how to spray computerized sensors into patients' chests during heart
surgery, so the sensors can relay information to the hospital computer.
The process could be commercially viable within 10 years.
Body computers will progress from monitoring health to delivering
medical care and ultimately to augmenting reality by piping the Internet
directly into the brain-if people can overcome their squeamishness about
brain implants. "There's a very short leap between implanting a
[cochlear] device and one that lets you receive data directly from the
Net," Tucker says.
Researchers are moving ahead boldly. For three months in 2002, Kevin
Warwick, a cybernetics professor at the University of Reading in
England, lived with electrodes implanted in his arm. In one test, he
wired them to an Internet-connected PC and then temporarily attached
electrodes to his wife's arm as well.
Warwick described this experiment in a 2006 interview with
ITWales.com: "When she moved her hand three times, I felt in my brain
three pulses, and my brain recognized that my wife was communicating
with me. It was the world's first purely electronic communication from
brain to brain, and therefore the basis for thought communication."
Bumps in the Road - But before we wire our bodies, we need a far more
secure network than today's Internet and better privacy safeguards for
the petabytes of consumer data that an always-connected world will
generate, says Pradeep Khosla, co-director of CyLab, Carnegie Mellon
University's computer security think tank.
Ari Juels, chief scientist for data security company RSA, says that
biometrics and encryption will help with access security; but trouble
may still arise when data reaches users' screens. Context-smart back-end
systems will help.
"They'll know that, if you are in San Francisco right now, someone in
Thailand shouldn't be using your credit card number," Juels explains.
Khosla says that a combination of technology, education, and tough
legislation against "the abuse and misuse of information" is the best
way to surmount the privacy hurdles that remain. "I don't think we're
quite there yet," he adds.
In Liebhold's view, the issue of privacy needs to be elevated. "I
don't think it's a foregone conclusion that our privacy will be lost or
that it will be protected. It's our fate. We have control over the
future; we're not victims of it."