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.
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
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
"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 ten 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 April.
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 touchpad in January. GestureTek uses the input from camera phones to deliver gesture control.
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
$2500, 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."
Liebhold, senior researcher at Palo Alto, California’s Institute for
the Future, 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, Maryland. "Your
digital life will follow you around like a shadow."
Surrounded by Intelligence
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
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.
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 neighborhoods, 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 neighbors’ homes. In 10 or 15 years,
entire communities will be networked."
The most significant
use of sensors in homes, however, will be to monitor inhabitants’
health. An FDA-approved under-the-mattress monitor activates when heart
patients lie down. Japan’s Matsushita has built a toilet seat that
sends tiny electric charges through a users’ buttocks to measure body
Our Computers, Ourselves
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
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
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.
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: "[W]hen 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
Bumps in the Road
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, codirector 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.
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."
Remains of the Day: Life, Bit by Bit
We have met Big Brother, and he is us. Tiny cameras and wireless
connections may herald an era of "sous-veillance"–observation from
below–says Jamais Cascio of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.
Cameras and microphones in your glasses or shirt buttons will record
every moment, upload it, and let you replay the good bits.
Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, has used wearable
computers to record nearly all of his waking life since 1981 (see the
video "nVidia GPU Computer Vision for Mediated Reality"). Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell has collected his life’s work in his MyLifeBits project.
recording every conversation you’ve ever had with your spouse," Cascio
says. "That kind of enhanced, easily searchable memory will change what
it means to be a person in a way that most technology doesn’t."
A Factory on Your Desk
One day you might order a new coffee pot, or even a new laptop, and not
have to wait for delivery. Instead, you’ll use a printer-size factory
to download and build it.
3D inkjet printers build prototypes for industry. Chemical giant BASF
is developing inks that will enable ordinary printers to spit out paper
or plastic circuit boards. For $2400, you can buy a Fab@home
desktop fabricator that lets you build objects out of acrylic; the
company hopes to produce units that can build with multiple materials
in the future.
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
predicts that personal nanofactories will be in operation by 2020.
Jamais Cascio, founder of Open the Future and a director at CRN, says
nanofactories will have a huge impact: "If it becomes cheaper and more
efficient to have something printed out locally instead of made in
China, it will have a big effect on things like trade balances,
international labor, and…our national economy."
Via PC World