Friday, April 06, 2007

A Brief Look at the Immediate Future of Computers

Remember that flying car, the jet pack, your meal-in-a-pill that was promised since about 1950? Look around you and you'll notice a curious lack of these things in our everyday life. What then, will our future look like? What if we went out five or ten years and took a few furtive glances around? What would we see? Who the hell writes these kind of predictions anyway?

While you should take any prediction about the future with a grain of salt and I don't have a crystal ball to peer into, I do find myself in an interesting position to take a broad look at what may be coming down the pipe. See, I work with technology, I often write about technology and I love technology. I also have the luck to be employed at a place where the technology you'll be seeing five or ten years down the road is begin developed today. Medical applications, the Big 'N' (nanotech), computer innovations. I occasionally get a glance into where this is big, messy pile of technology is going. Want to take a peek with me?

Computers, my one true love in the tech world are going to become even more pervasive than they are now. On today's commute via the train I've seen a dozen laptops, at least fifteen blackberries and god alone knows how much personal tech like music players and other cell phones. What we'll be seeing over the next five to ten years is the Personal Area Network come to life. PAN will take the form of your phone, your computer, your music player, your GPS device, your video player and your SMS capabilities. This will all be rolled into two, perhaps three devices which will live. . . on you. With the ability to connect to the rest of the world as well.

Some folks have been touting the wearable computer as the future. Well it's about 40% here right now. When these devices start to converge and when we see flash memory based computers with very small, multiple core processors, with wireless technology getting not only smaller but consuming less power – each person will have their chance to become their own super computing WiFi hotspot.

Where will this lead? I'm going to predict that in ten years, not only will people be wandering around with multiple, powerful computers on their person, but they'll be working with the first Virtual/Reality integrating devices. That's a fancy way of saying glasses that integrate computer displays overlaying the real world. Which will also be hooked into your other multiple devices. Not virtual reality, not reality itself but a combination of the two.

Imagine reading your email, which is superimposed at 25% opacity over the real world. Imaging calling up your music library and being able to look through titles, covers and play lists without using your hands or holding a device (other than perched on your nose). Imagine getting directions via your GPS device and having them displayed in real time overlaying the roads you're currently driving on. Imagine never having to buy another monitor again.

Imagine the lawsuits! Our near future is going to be a very exciting time!

When you visit a web 2.0 site today, particularly a social or bookmarking site such, you're almost always given the opportunity to tag what you're looking at. Tags are simple, single or multiple word descriptions of a thing. It doesn't matter if that thing is a link to another website, a video, some artwork or a piece of software. If that thing exists on that site, you can tag it. Tagging makes your stuff easier to find and sort by you, and opens up your stuff for the whole world to sift through and take a gander at, based on the tags that you and others have assigned. That's the social part, right?

Now imagine tagging the real world. It will be like Google Maps but in the real world, in real time. You eat at a restaurant and the food is inexpensive and fantastic! As you're leaving, you glance back at the door, and tag the restaurant with “cheap, excellent food, wonderful service, 5 stars”. You can choose whether you want to keep these tags to yourself, open them up to a select group of friends or publish them for the whole world too see. You publish them for the world and 10 minutes later a couple from out of town wanders by looking for a place to eat. They see your tags and decide that this is the place for them as well.

It's such a simple thing but it will change our world drastically. Will you rely on a Zagat's guide again if you can see 17,423 personal tags for an individual eating establishment, and sift through them quickly to immediately display a 1-5 star result based on individuals who have eaten there in the past? Tagging stationary objects via GPS is easy. It's already being done. Tagging moving objects is next to impossible unless those objects are under constant surveillance or have a GPS locater on them. I'm sure GPS locaters are going to be built into these, not for a big brother sense, but for an ease of use sense.

Great, now people can tag other people! What if you yourself were tagged. What would my life be like if seventeen other people tagged me as an asshole? Or a good mark for pickpockets? What would law enforcement and the military do with this technology? The 'what ifs' are endless. One thing I can tell you is that when something like this does come along, it's going to change the way we think about everything. It's going to change the way business is done as well, which means a lot of resistance from large corporations and lots of startups that will fail.

This little bit of technology, along with the convergence of small, powerful parts into a piece of technology that's easy to use and easy to wear is going to change the way our society functions. That's a pretty big thing to say but I think it's true. Look at the world now and how data pertains to our lives in things like the Net. Now look back 25 years ago and see how different things were. You couldn't just hop online to see what movie was playing, use the Web as a dictionary or Google a soon-to-be boyfriend to see what they've been up to. Now take a change just as big, just as available and just as sweeping and move that ten years out. That could be what we're looking at. And all of the technology to do this is available in one form or another right now. A few more years of development, a few more advances in miniaturization and we'll be swimming in this stuff.

The problem used to be how to store and access all of this data. Now we've got larger capacity hard drives growing smaller every quarter. Multiple core computers are shrinking and using less power than their less powerful predecessors. Indexed databases make data searching easy. Our next problem isn't going to be on the computing end, it's going to be on how to sort and use all of this stuff!

And that, my friends and Internet acquaintances is what will help drive Artificial Intelligence one rather large step forward. If you're thinking “Glasses to AI...what?” then let me clarify. A big problem with AI is in how a computer can interact with the outside world. How do you get a computer to sort and prioritize the millions of data points that flow across our senses every second? Colors, sounds, shapes, touch, lighting, depth, tone – the list goes on. Turns out that all of that mushy grey stuff between our ears does that on a regular basis. We learn to tune out what's not immediately important and focus on what our brains assume is. That's big. That's what keeps all of us from drooling into our laps as we try and process an entire world of perceptions and data. If we can learn to work with this, which we'll have to once the technology described above becomes more pervasive, we'll be taking a big step towards computers that learn.

At the core of my being, this makes me happy. Happy to see not only new tech coming and new ways to think coming with it but to see all of my wonder at the fiction I've been reading since I was a kid coming to play in my life as real, tangible stuff. That is exciting. That makes me want to see what's going to happen ten years after our next leap!


Pete said...

I like new technology, and I love playing with it and reading about it as it comes about...but that said, articles like this scare the piss out of me.

I don't know if I'm the wrong generation to appreciate all of this (I expect most of us will be, actually, it's our kids who will not bat an eye at wearable computers) but the idea of the internet being just a physical layer that exists on top of the real world, and we access both seamlessly, is alarming to me. Not for any particular reason, it just scares me.

One thing that always worries me about the exchange of information being conducted entirely between computers and across ethernets is that, if the world were to go smash tomorrow, no one in a couple thousand years could unbury our relics and see what it is we were doing. The internet would vanish, and everything on it would go poof.

I often thought this when I switched from my typewriter to writing on a computer and backing up on floppy discs. I always thought "If archaeologists find this disc in a thousand years, not only will they perhaps not be able to use it, they won't know how to translate the files stored on it."

It's as if the Greeks never built great buildings, statues, or wrote anything down. It's as if the Greeks just talked about everything as though it existed, and then when they died, it vanished too.


That said, the internet gives me instant access to articles from 1998 as if I were reading something posted yesterday. That's the conundrum. It makes history both instantaneous, durable, and fragile all at once.

Lucien said...

This is really interesting stuff, ARSGeek. There is some brilliant futurism here, and fodder for some great SciFi.

And Pete, I think your comment about not leaving a physical legacy is right on the mark, and a very astute observation. This concept should make it into your writing somewhere down the line.

Gregory Adams said...

But won't 60% of the world's dry land be underwater in a few years?

I do get a kick out of the contrast between enthusiasm for the future and the cries of doom that pervade. Really our time is no different than any other time, and in that, what does come will most likely be a surprise.

I do look forward to the day where I can search for things in real life as easily as i do on the computer. "Where'd I leave my ipod?" the computer I'm wearing would know. This will be more important as i grow older and more senile.

ArsGeek said...

I for one can't wait until I can index the world.

It would make my life so much easier, as I seldom remember what I need to do, what I promised I'd do, where I thought I should do it, and who I should do it to/with/for.

Tags would make my life a lot easier.

I'm glad y'all like this piece and frankly I'm glad it scared Pete a little bit. We need to be a bit scared of this stuff as well.

Most of this will probably happen, and happen with no background support such as laws, experience, memes or taboos.

It's going to be very interesting around here in a few years. :)

Komodosp said...

Interesting article, just wondering what you think of this notion (in the far more distant future). We will be able to upload the contents of our brains and store them... back ourselves up if you like. Taking it a step further, we will be able to replicate our own thoughts and decision as computer logic, and whizz around the Internet at will. We will spend less and less time in them, and lose any of our animalistic desires (having come up with better online versions), we put less and less importance in our bodies and eventually have no qualms about just letting them die (after all we can easily download ourselves into another body, and we'll probably have let go of religion by then), effectively spelling the end of humanity.

Komodosp said...

"We will spend less and less time in them"

... in our bodies, I mean